Paul is a film that manages to do a few difficult things very well, but it does so without taking too many risks. When you create a film that is filled with raunchy R-rated humor, you need to balance that sometimes black humor with a likable cast that won’t offend, or you risk alienating large sections of your potential audience. Paul manages to do just that. And while the story won’t surprise many, the humor will entertain most.
And make no mistake, Paul is not a suitable film for kids. The themes are fairly universal and even uplifting, but the humor is mature. Director Greg Mottola (Adventureland, Superbad) again manages to balance that maturity with just the right amount of childishness to make it endearing, just as he did with Superbad, but it is Pegg and Frost that make this movie. Having written it helps, but both actors are likable as everyday geeks that you can relate with. The alien, Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), has some of the best lines and is consistently the funniest character, but it is tough to relate with a CGI/puppet character except in relation to those around him. The character of Gollum was crucial to the Lord of the Rings, but he needed Sam and Frodo to bring him to life, and the same is true with Paul. Or at least the same is somewhat true, as Paul’s humor and attitude are much more human that Gollum, which makes the character seem much more real and easier to root for.
In general, Paul succeeds throughout. The movie will already have the interest of those that it was made for—the geek nation—but it should appeal to the mainstream crowds that don’t mind a little vulgarity in their humor now and then. Paul is just a funny film, so much so that you can overlook any minor issues that the movie has.
The Story of an Alien in America (not that kind)
Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) are your typical geeks. After travelling over 5,000 miles from their English homes to attend Comic-Con in San Diego, the pair rent an RV to take a tour of America’s most UFO-friendly locations, like Area 51 and Roswell, New Mexico. Things are going well—for the most part—when they have a close encounter with the alien Paul.
After confirming that they are safe from any potential probing, Graeme and Clive begin to become fond of the foul mouthed, chain smoking, drug using little alien with a sense of humor, and they agree to help him avoid the government so he can catch a ride back to his own planet. Along the way they meet the committed Christian Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig) who has a crisis of faith when she meets Paul, and she joins them as they try to stay one step ahead of “Man in Black”, Special Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman), and his clueless men, Agents Haggard (Bill Hader) and O’Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio.
The story is straight forward enough, and won’t really surprise you, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The film doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. In some ways it is similar to the ideas behind Pegg and Frost’s previous collaborations, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Where those movies parodied the zombie and buddy cop action genres, Paul does the same for the alien on the run genre.
Edgar Wright, Phone Home
Where this film differs from the previous Pegg and Frost collaborations is in the notable absence of Edgar Wright, who directed both films as well as co-wrote them with Pegg. In Paul, Frost joins Pegg as co-writer, while Mottola takes over as director. As a result, the film feels much different from the previous movies even though it shares some similarities. That doesn’t make it worse—far from it—but if people are hoping for a Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead style satire, they might be slightly disappointed.
Where Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead could both be described as quirky, and both featured plots that held plenty of surprises, Paul is a bit more straightforward in its approach, and its focus is more on the laugh out loud moments. That has its pros and cons.
The pros are that the plot is a bit more heart than you might think when you first meet Paul and he starts dropping F bombs. But in general you know what to expect and you won’t be surprised too often by the plot. That in itself allows you to laugh at the take on those familiar situations. Paul never takes itself seriously, and the story is deliberately straightforward. Pegg and Frost take the familiar and add their humor on top of it rather than reinvent it.
The cons are that Paul doesn’t take many risks and the ending is predictable. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it does somewhat limit the movie. It will entertain, but it won’t have a ton of lasting appeal. It also feels somewhat forced at times, and clichés run rampant throughout. Every stereotype you expect to see in a movie about people hunting a good alien will somehow make it into the film. It doesn’t always make sense for them to be there—whether it be the ignorant red-necks or the government agents that want to kill Paul for reasons that aren’t really justifiable. While the main characters are well rounded enough, there isn’t much depth to the supporting characters in this film, and their motivations are generally fairly thin. But despite the easy jokes that you know are coming, the humor is usually enough to make you ignore the little annoyances.
For me, the humor was right up my alley. I am a self professed geek that grew up with sci-fi as my genre of choice. This film is Pegg and Frost delving into their own geek backgrounds and creating a film that will appeal to likeminded people. To those that share their slant, the movie will make sense immediately. The in-jokes will be obvious and funny, while the characters will at least in some ways be instantly relatable.
For those that have never been comfortable with sci-fi, or just didn’t grow up totally saturated with what has become classic geek history, the story might not hit the same notes. There is no denying the appeal to most of the humor, but there is a definite target audience to Paul, and not everyone is part of it. This film is a much more accessible film than, say, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which also targets the geek niche. It also won’t have the cult appeal though, because it straddles the line between niche and mainstream.
Two and a Half Men
Paul is a film with heart and that primarily is due to the relationship between the various lead characters, and none more so than that of Graeme and Clive. They are geeks and proud of it. Both men are comfortable with who they are, and yet both are constantly fish out of water. They operate on a slightly different plane, which gives them a touch of innocence. When they meet the raunchy and bizarre alien Paul, they share a kinship with the alien’s inability to simply blend into society.
Paul is also a bit of a prick, but he is also honest about it, and generally good natured. Graeme and Clive are both good guys, but neither is a born leader, so Paul pushes them to be more than they are. When they meet up with the ultra-religious Ruth, she also shares a touch of the alienation (no pun intended), and together all four members of the group help each other to be more than they were.
That is the backdrop on which some extremely raunchy and definitely R-rated humor is hung, and because of the pureness of the characters, they can get away with some truly filthy things and most audiences won’t bat an eye because it is all good natured and told by likable characters.
Frost and Pegg are natural together, and the special effects of Paul are handled well, but Rogen is a solid choice for the voice and he compliments the others well. Wiig continues to show her solid comedic timing, and Bateman again shows that he has earned his second chance in Hollywood and deserves his new found shot at superstardom. Although some of the random characters can annoy a bit, Bill Hader almost steals the show as agent Haggard, and both Blythe Danner and Sigourney Weaver attack their characters with a glee that can only come from people that seem to genuinely be having a good time while making the movie.
Paul is a fun and entertaining movie with some genuinely funny moments. If you are hoping for a another Shaun of the Dead, you might be disappointed, but most audiences will find a lot to like.
There are a few issues with the film that some people might be annoyed by. The pacing is a bit off at times–especially the stretch leading up to the first meeting with Paul– the story is a touch predictable and filled with American stereotypes galore, and there are one or two plot holes and unexplored moments that you might hope to have seen more of, but all of that can be forgiven thanks to the genuinely funny moments.
For geeks, Paul is a must see. It is a movie written by people that don’t just understand the genre they are working in, they are part of it. Pegg and Frost aren’t just writing about geek culture, they are fans of it and it shows. Most longtime geeks will recognize and appreciate the humor because it is filled with jokes that they themselves may have cracked.
If Paul can work the mainstream side and move beyond the niche that it is made for, then most audiences that give it a shot will leave feeling entertained.