starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman, Sigourney Weaver
screenplay by Simon Pegg & Nick Frost
directed by Greg Mottola
by Walter Chaw As talky and obsessed with Star Wars as a Kevin Smith joint and every bit as awkward and unfunny for extended stretches, Greg Mottola's Paul squanders a wonderful cast and a vaguely interesting concept in pursuit of the same pomo alchemy wrought in the kinds of movies Edgar Wright makes. Not all the blame can be ladled on Mottola, however, as he appears to be the patsy holding the camera for co-screenwriters/stars/buddies Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, engaged in what's probably some weak, last-ditch go at saving Frost's career. Pegg and Frost are British geeks Clive and Graeme, touring UFO landing sites in the American hinterland after a jaunt at the San Diego Comic-Con. One night outside Area 51, naturally, they pick up hitchhiker Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), a foul-talking "gray" who smokes doobies, drinks beer, and generally acts a lot like Howard the Duck. The premise paves the way for the usual stuff about a virgin (Buggs (Kristin Wiig)) wanting to fornicate and indulging in wacky-tobaccy; about fag-hating rednecks in a honkytonk with a band that plays a bluegrass version of the Cantina Theme from Star Wars; and about referencing everything from Capturing the Friedmans to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (with an assist from Steven Spielberg on the phone, no less). As the government suit responsible for Paul's capture, Sigourney Weaver gets her iconic "get away from her, you bitch" recited to her at Devil's Tower, while Jeffrey Tambor gets to do a devastating impersonation of Whitley Strieber--meaning that if there are chuckles to be had along the way, they're the asthmatic, superior kind that Comic Book Guy on "The Simpsons" enjoys.
In wanting to be a fan letter to geekdom, all Paul really does is highlight how singular, and wonderful, an achievement is J.J. Abrams's Star Trek reboot. There's a film that makes all the references it needs to (including the green girl) in order to appease its fanboy audience without being such an arch sonofabitch about it. What's most unbecoming, though, are moments given over to Frost's failed-author character that ring uncomfortably close to...what is it? Some attempt at pathos? Like a scene where he expresses jealousy about the budding relationships between Graeme and Buggs--and Paul and Graeme--that seem to confirm (in a deliriously convoluted way) all the film's accusations of the central pair's homosexuality. It doesn't have a consistent tone, in other words. The late introduction of a crazy old lady (Blythe Danner) is unfortunate for how it gives rise to not only more of that instinct towards unearned sentimentality, but also another stock character seeking cheap, Betty White laughs at the potty-mouthed senior. It's all too bad, especially considering that a man-in-black played by Jason Bateman resists the standard expectations of the role and ends up with the best, most felt line in the film ("He introduced me to my wife").
Paul is capable of complexity--it just doesn't work hard enough most of the time. Fine as far as it goes, I suppose, but Paul gets into really deep water when it decides to take a few shots at fundamentalist Christianity, only to abandon the thread with a Vulcan mind-meld and Buggs's subsequent decision to squeeze in all the profanity her wacko upbringing denied her. It's lazy--more so because I'd like to believe that Pegg and Rogen (the third person to work on the script) and maybe Frost aren't stupid guys, meaning that the reluctance to do more with Creationists and other far-right freakshows speaks to a desire to not kick over any anthills. Aiming for innocuous, then, it makes as much hay as it can from declensions of "fuck," surprise fatalities, and nut-shots, including a running gag about the size of Paul's space-junk. But even then, The Simpsons Movie had the courage of its convictions to actually show Bart's scrotum. Paul, above its paucity of imagination, is otherwise listless, wandering around as it does looking for situations from which it can mine stupid send-ups of Meatballs humour with the impetus of a pot seed caught in a bong eddy. It stinks of desperation. Given the people involved, you have the right to expect more. Originally published: March 18, 2011.