After the success of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, stars Simon Pegg (who also co-wrote) and Nick Frost temporarily jettisoned their co-writer/director Edgar Wright, with whom they eventually want to make a final film in their ‘Cornetto’ trilogy, and took a little road trip to the sci-fi/fantasy land of comic conventions, close encounters and clandestine Government Agencies, with Paul, their latest collaboration.
The story follows the science fiction author Clive Gollings, and his illustrator Graeme Willy, best friends and unparalleled comic book nerds, who had travelled to the States to visit various places where UFOs were sighted. Not long after they set out, however, they encounter a strange creature on the roads: an alien; an extra-terrestrial, who calls himself Paul. Obviously totally thrown aback, the two reluctantly agree to help Paul – who is on the run from a covert Governmental unit – get back to his home world. Along the way they have to deal with angry rednecks, blundering Feds, bible-bashing shotgun-wielding maniacs, and a one-eyed girl.
Despite Pegg and Frost played, well, essentially the same characters that they were in both Shaun’ and ‘Fuzz, Greg ‘Superbad’ Mottola’s Paul is not quite in the same league as their previous two comedic masterpieces. There’s something missing, and, in three viewings, I still have not fully figured out what. Whether it’s because of their chemistry – which comes across as marginally contrived; or because they’re just that little bit older now; or simply because of Simon Pegg’s ridiculous hair-style and beard (a subtle reference to Ewan MacGregor’s Obi-Wan from the Star Wars prequels), these two just don’t gel together as smoothly as before. And whilst they take the same approach with respect to film references that they did in their last two films – and in their early Brit TV series Spaced – they appear to have forgotten to forge these respectful nods into a story which, itself, shows love for the genre. Paul just isn’t as funny in its parody of all that is cliché; nor as honest in its characterisations.
Still, despite this disappointment, it should be remembered that Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead were great movies, and, just because Paul doesn’t live up to expectations, doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near the realms of ‘bad’. Far from it. Whilst not consistently laugh-out-loud, it’s more funny than not; whilst never really exciting, it’s also far from boring; and whilst the characters are not as well-rounded as they should be, they are still brought to life by engaging performances.
Pegg’s become a little bit too big for his own shoes, I think, and still just appears to be playing himself in every movie (including Star Trek), only with an ever aggrandising ego. But working with Frost tends to curb his over-the-top-ness, even if, as is the case here, it often calls for Frost to play himself down somewhat. Ever used to being the butt of all jokes – the stupid cuddly bear of the duo – Frost has lost a bit of the confidence he exuded in Fuzz and Shaun, and so therefore is not quite as fun to watch. Beyond the still engaging, but not-quite-on-top-form pair we do get a host of increasingly good supporting players, though, with Superbad’s Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio playing the suitably inept Fed Agents hunting them; Jason Bateman on great, perfectly stoic form as their more professional superior, and Bridesmaids’ Kristen Wiig making for a great one-eyed heroine – her character having perhaps the most engaging story arc.
Then there’s Seth Rogen, who is arguably the star of the show. With the funniest lines, the funniest scenes, and easily the most interesting character, Rogen steals every scene he is in – and doesn’t show his face once! His distinctive voice, intonations, and digitally captured facial expressions and mannerisms are all on clear display, however, in the character of Paul, the alien. And, as much as the CG effects are really very good here, it’s Rogen’s easily recognisable input that truly brings this creature to life. Oddly, I heard criticisms of the movie regarding this – i.e. the fact that the character of Paul basically is Seth Rogen – but I think that it only worked wonders for the movie. Seriously, Paul has all of the best bits, and he’s trademark Rogen through and through.
At the end of the day, the often more obscure film references in Paul probably give it a marginally broader appeal – it was easily the most successful of the Pegg/Frost collaborations, particularly on its US release (although its US setting must help, as must the presence of Rogen) – whilst also playing to the more obsessive qualities of film geeks and comic nerds from both sides of the pond. I personally found it immensely fun trying to note all of the subtle nods to classics of the sci-fi genre, as well as all of the other films it references. Whether it’s a seemingly throwaway line, or an acted-out moment (of which there simply weren’t enough – far fewer than Fuzz, certainly), if you like this kind of thing, then you will love picking out the key moments and having a chuckle with your mates (or being embarrassed because of your geeky film knowledge). My personal favourites were the Die Hard nod, and Paul’s imitation of the Predator – classic. But the film also makes good use of Star Wars references (there’s a very clever one at the end, but fans will probably get the biggest kick out of Jason Bateman’s Hans Solo moment), sending up all the classic Spielberg and Lucas flicks: Jaws, Duel, Close Encounters, and, of course, E.T.; three out of four Indy films, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, as well as further referencing the likes of Star Trek, The X-Files, Men in Black, Aliens, The Blues Brothers, Battlestar Galactica, James Bond, Leon and even that damn Titantic movie. (I’m sure there are plenty more that I missed, like the reference from the whole Keith Nash sequence – feel free to post the ones you spotted!)
Then there’s the whole God vs. Darwin thing. I’ve left it to last, almost because it doesn’t even need to be addressed in a review of the film itself, but internet furore being what it is, the supposed ‘controversy’ of the movie ought to be at least noted. Personally, I didn’t find Paul’s seemingly anti-Christian messages in the least bit offensive – on the contrary, they were often some of the funniest moments. Surely we can’t take them all that seriously anyway, because the arguments posited are basically rounded off by evidence in the form of Paul’s existence – so doesn’t that mean that the only offensive that could be taken is if you really do believe in extra-terrestrials?! Clearly many thought different – again predominantly in America – but I really don’t think these guys were trying to start a religious War. Paul merely attempts to poke fun at extreme fundamentalist Christians in the same way as it mocks rednecks; it’s just a generalisation made purely for comedic effect, not a political commentary.
And the Extended Cut is really no big deal. Normally I would spend three paragraphs detailing the exact differences between the two versions but, here, it really doesn’t matter – in all honestly, you could watch the movie twice, accidently watching the two different versions, and not even notice. The five extra minutes do not amount to a succession of hilarious lines and brilliant scenes, on the contrary, they are normally pretty insignificant – and far from exceptional. There’s an extra moment before the duo set off on their journey, a moment with the valet, one single great line from Seth Rogen (“I’m a little tense, I was just involved in a major car crash.”), more God vs. Darwin debating, more background into why Kristen Wiig’s character has one eye, and one good extra line from Simon Pegg (“Just because your truth isn't a true truth doesn't mean that there is no truth, Ruth.”). Aside from these being largely pretty unremarkable, there’s some alternative dialogue used which sometimes does not work quite as well – they did a similar thing with the dialogue in Die Hard 4, basically extending some, originally, pretty punchy lines a little bit too far in the wrong direction. Overall it’s probably still a marginally better version of the movie, but don’t expect a more violent, sexual, or f-bomb laden ‘Unrated’ cut – it’s far from that; just an almost imperceptibly different alternative version for your consumption.
Although Paul remains not quite as good as its predecessors, it is still an entertaining little voyage through the sci-fi genre, and is a nice enough way to while away the time whilst waiting for the forthcoming (hopefully not too long off) final chapter in the Pegg/Frost/Wright trilogy following on from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. I don’t think it will have quite the same enduring rewatch value, but it has earned a place amongst its brethren, and is certainly worth checking out.