There really aren’t enough movies about aliens coming to earth that aren’t nightmarish scenarios, like everything bar Hollywood getting destroyed in Battle: Los Angeles, or Keanu Reeves having to be emotional in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Of course, all the nice-alien ones are all comedies, because it’s tricky to take seriously, right? And hey, I’m no scientist—for all I know, electricity is still made by catching lightning with your kites—but my opinion is that it’s a bit self-absorbed to think that we’re the only living critters on this great expanse called the Universe. And I’ll always be happy thinking that any close encounters would be more likely to produce laughs than terror.
In Paul, nerdy British pals Graeme and Clive (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, stretching their abilities) take off on a UFO-themed road trip across America, hiring an RV and stopping at all the premier sites—the Black Mailbox, Area 51, Roswell, and so on. Despite their open minds, it still comes as a bit of a surprise when they happen upon Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen, so casually he possibly recorded his voice sitting in a beanbag in front of his tv), a green, big-headed alien driving poorly and at speed to get away from the people who are trying to kill him—and who is aiming to get back home. With his car smashed, Paul hitches a ride with our heroes, and they belt away from agent Zoil (Jason Bateman, coolly terrifying) and his bumbling subordinates, Haggard and O’Reilly (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio, respectively), and even manage to pick up a pretty lady when they rent RV space from religious zealot Ruth (Kristen Wiig) and then kind of kidnap her.
As a proud owner of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz on DVD, I did a little dance when I heard about Paul. Comedies are something I’m shamelessly and vocally thrilled about watching and I was sad that I missed its opening weekend by being overseas. (I know, I know. You feel terrible for me, don’t you?) I finally made it on the weekend, prepared and happy, but honestly—I was disappointed. It wasn’t as consistently funny as their other films, and getting from point A to B did occasionally cause the movie to suffer from dead time. The addition of certain people for the sake of cameos—Jane Lynch’s waitress for one—seemed to serve no other purpose than to have everyone in the audience hiss “Glee!” at each other. Graeme and Clive make some dick moves, like crashing into people’s cars and kidnapping an unconscious woman; they also didn’t have much of a background to work with apart from Clive being an aspiring author and Graeme drawing pictures. What are their home lives like? Are they in the US because they’re skipping child support or murder charges back in England? Despite being infatuated with Pegg and Frost personally, I couldn’t quite bring myself to get attached to them in Paul. Moments of tension arise, like when Clive confesses the reasons behind his anger to Paul, but then everything is defused and the movie goes back to its slow burn.
Of course it is a comedy, and they are talented writers, so I’d be wrong to imply there weren’t some pretty great laughs in Paul. While Seth Rogen’s weed-soaked slacker schtick is a bit tired, Paul himself is such an amicable dude you’re invested in seeing him return home. The realisation of the extent of Paul’s fame—the reason he looks like all the alien pictures around is because they look like him—is good fun, including an amusing phone call conversation with a certain famous director. Ruth’s turnaround from hardcore Christian to wide-eyed believer involves her getting up to all the things she missed before, including cursing at everyone in sight. And like in their other movies, Pegg and Frost do inspire a kind of cosy, comforting hilarity because they’re such everyday flawed and entertaining people who keep getting into comedic scrapes that happen to get caught on camera. Discovering who Paul’s nemesis The Big Guy is, and the final scenes of the movie, are both clichéd and unpredictable, cheesy and perfect. And as Clive, Frost, who can sometimes in these movies be that kind of pain in the arse friend that’s good for an occasional laugh but you wouldn’t actually want to introduce to that attractive potential spouse, steps up and makes the two heroes finally on par when it comes to likeability. Wouldn’t mind seeing Nick Frost be the one who gets the girl for once, though.
In summary: go in with less fangirl hope than I did, and it would Meet or possibly Exceed Expectations, but as it stands, it’s Below Expectations. That still makes it a good movie, because I was aiming high, but it can be slow in points. While I can’t fault Greg Mottola’s directing, I can’t help but wonder if usual Pegg/Frost cohort Edgar Wright would have added that hyperactive excitement and extra edge that those boys deserve. Extra points go to Frost’s long hair, but points are taken off for Pegg’s. And one star extra for making an alien movie—because, frankly, there should be more, and now I’m compelled to go have a Mac and Me/Explorers movie night and sigh theatrically about my childhood.