Friday, March 18, 2011

Movie Review: "Paul"

Is this the year of Spielberg nostalgia?

In June, children of the '80s will flock to J.J. Abrams' "Super 8," whose trailer suggests that it will resonate strongly with fans of the Amblin brand.

Until then, we have "Paul," an extraterrestrial comedy starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and littered with homages to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T." and "Jaws."

Of course, I don't remember E.T. smoking pot or saying the f-word every five minutes. Maybe I haven't seen the special edition.

Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are two British nerds visiting the U.S. for a comic book convention, followed by a road trip across famous alien landing sites, such as Area 51. During their travels, a little green man named Paul encounters the duo and asks for their help escaping the government clutches. Sane people would normally run away if an extraterrestrial approached their RV, but as Paul is a laid back, stoner alien voiced by Seth Rogen, the two geeks don't mind a little extra adventure. Along the way they pick up a fundamentalist Christian named Ruth (Kristen Wiig) and run afoul of a government agent (Jason Bateman) out to track Paul down.

A film so full of film references is nothing new to Pegg and Frost, who co-starred in the classic genre mash-ups "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz." Like those two films, "Paul" is written by Pegg and Frost. Yet the film lacks the energy, wit and fun of those classics, settling for lazy gags and crass banter. It's "E.T." by way of Kevin Smith, although even Smith would find the "Star Wars" shout outs a bit too obvious.

Pegg and Frost really have nothing to do here. "Shaun" and "Fuzz" may not be deep films, but they gave the two actors actual characters to play. Despite its zombie film roots, "Shaun's" humor came from the idea of a slacker having to man up and rise to the occasion; "Hot Fuzz's" biggest laughs came from placing an action movie super cop in a tiny English hamlet.

Here, we're not given much more information other than the fact that Graeme and Clive are nerds who like "Star Wars." Clive is supposedly a writer, but nothing comes of that until the end credits. Graeme has a romance with Ruth, but it's mostly obligatory - there's nothing really for Pegg to sink his teeth into.

What's left is a collection of obvious and homophobic jokes (the hotel only has one bed, ha!) or movie references that start out clever and then are delivered with no subtlety. For instance, it's funny when Graeme and Clive buy "Five Tones" fireworks to signal Paul's alien companions - movie fans would get the "Close Encounters" reference. It's not funny to have them remark about how fitting the reference is.

But the majority of the film's gags are of this variety. A few are clever - listen closely to the music in a Western bar, for instance. Some, such as Paul's contribution to 1980s movies, start funny and then go on too long for the joke to work. And others - a character shooting a CB and saying "boring conversation anyway" - just lack conviction and fall flat.

You might notice I haven't even mentioned Paul yet. The truth is, he kind of gets lost in the shuffle. I understand the thinking in bringing Rogen in to voice the alien as a laidback everyschlub. But there's really nothing very interesting or funny about Paul, except that he talks like Seth Rogen. Maybe I'm still recovering from "The Green Hornet," but that didn't help my enjoyment of the film.

As for Wiig, the "Saturday Night Live" star who has been hit-or-miss in feature films, she's given the thankless task of playing a stereotypical and offensive caricature of fundamentalist Christians. There's an intriguing concept in having a character begin to question their faith by encountering something beyond their grasp, but the film plays it for cheap laughs about religion and abandons any attempt at character in exchange for having Ruth be so excited about being "free" of dogma so that she can now smoke and swear all she wants. It's a mean-spirited and unfunny characterization.

When it becomes clear that the road trip can only meander so long before getting stale, the film packs itself full of characters. In addition to Bateman's agent, we have Bill Hader as a psychotic cop, John Carroll Lynch as Ruth's fundamentalist father, Sigourney Weaver as the government head behind the conspiracy and Blythe Danner as one of Paul's oldest earth friends. None of these people are particularly bad - I laughed quite a bit at Bateman's deadpan delivery, Weaver's over-the-top menace and Hader's bizarre antics. But by the time the film gets to the third act, it becomes so stuffed with superfluous characters that it spins off the rails.

The problem is that I've loved Frost and Pegg before. I hold "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" up as two of the last decade's greatest comedies. The two have a wonderful chemistry together, and that does result in some scattered laughs here and there in "Paul." But with its genre mixings and the duo at the forefront, the film obviously wants to evoke the same sense of fun as their previous collaborations, but simply lacks the wit and energy.

The problem may be director Greg Mottola, who has successfully handled buddy comedies ("Superbad") and nostalgia ("Adventureland") before. But Mottola lacks the finesse to seamlessly integrate the lifts from other films with the same flair as "Shaun" director Edgar Wright, who used homage as a way to tell a story; here, the parody feels clunky and obvious, delivered with a shout instead of a sly whisper.

It's disappointing that a cast and crew that has made me laugh very hard before is unable to get more than a few chuckles out of me this time out. But their previous successes give me confidence that they'll return to form in the future; hopefully, "Paul" is just an alien experience to them.

Originally published here.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.