Most modern comedies end up being so stupid that it’s painful to watch the actors embarrass themselves on the big screen. There are also comic actors who seem to have a string of box office successes even as their films are stupid and only barely entertaining. That’s why it’s a pleasure to see the terrific comic team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost skewer the alien conspiracy genre in the consistently funny Paul.
Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) are comic-book geeks who have flown from their home in England to San Diego for Comic-Con, the ultimate nerdfest. In addition to best friends since childhood, they’re also collaborators — Graeme’s the artist and Clive’s the writer — on a graphic novel called “Jelva: Alien Queen of the Varvak”. What better way for two geeks to enjoy their first visit to the United States than renting an RV and going on a cross-country UFO road trip?
Just outside of Area 51, Graeme and Clive have a close encounter with a mysterious car that races ahead of them, then flips and rolls. They stop and are shocked to find Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), a smart-ass alien who has been held captive by the US Gov’t for almost sixty years. Reluctantly, they give Paul a ride and are quickly taken by his good spirits, snarky comments and bonhomie.
But there are bad men on their trail! The mysterious Men In Black, lead by the hilariously deadpan Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman), with his incompetent twit associates Haggard (Bill Hader) and O’Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio), and directed by the even more mysterious Big Guy (a delightfully geeky bit of surprise casting I won’t ruin here), and they’re dead set on capturing Paul and returning him for further research.
I really enjoyed Paul and found it full of great lines, sideways references to other films and insider jokes, funny situations and a story arc that kept the comic momentum going for the entire movie. I was already a fan of Pegg and Frost from their earlier work (notably Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead) but I think this is their best work to date. Just don’t be surprised by the never-ending stream of obscenities along the way on this Close Encounters-inspired lunatic road trip movie.
As an unabashed fan of cinema, I love when films have subtle references to other films, to famous scenes in movies, to music from other movies or even shoot scenes in exterior locales famous from other movies. Paul does all of this, and there are so many nods to Spielberg films — particularly Close Encounters of the Third Kind — that it makes me wonder if Steven wasn’t one of the production team. In fact, there’s one scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark that’s just a brilliant juxtaposition, and when they end up at the Devil’s Tower for the climactic scene of the film, well, I was just delighted.
The film opens up with a dog running through a Wyoming farm house smack in the middle of nowhere. He’s clearly upset, and when cute little blonde Tara (Mia Stallard) lets him out, he starts barking and runs towards the flashing lights in the field, just to have a close encounter with the alien whose ship crashes to Earth. We don’t encounter Tara again until sixty years later, when Graeme and Clive take Paul back to that original farmhouse to apologize for showing up. By then Tara (now Blythe Danner) has grown up to be a nutjob, the town eccentric who still misses her dog and yearns for any sort of proof that there really was an alien and that she wasn’t a nut.
Paul (voice of Seth Rogen) and Graeme (Simon Pegg), from the film “Paul”
Graeme’s love interest, however, is Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), who starts out as a Bible-thumping fundamentalist wearing an “Evolve This!” t-shirt that depicts Jesus shooting Darwin, under the overprotective wing of her father Moses (John Carroll Lynch). The argument she has with Paul about intelligent design versus evolution is brilliant and when she has to face the fact that her beliefs don’t have space for an alien, intelligent or otherwise, she transforms from meek fundamentalist to a wild, if naive, free spirit. Her father joins the chase after she’s inadvertently kidnapped by the boys after staying at the Buggs RV Park (which has the catchy name “The Pearly Gates”).
There are also two rednecks who Graeme and Clive encounter early in the film, Gus (David Koechner) and Jake (Jesse Plemons). Add them to the chase, though they show up in rather random intervals. They are, however, the excuse for Paul to make a lot of wry references to anal probes, to everyone’s great amusement.
This is a film that will bear multiple viewings, with quotable lines and so many insider references that some of them even when completely over my head. For example, pay attention to the music that the band’s playing in the second bar they go into, it should be familiar to any Star Wars fan. Agent Zoil’s name is an inside joke too: his first name is Lorenzo.
After so many parodies and satires by teams like the Wayan brothers that have stories that don’t make sense, a string of jokes and sight gags that only barely hold up as a storyline, we’ve come to expect that for this genre. Fortunately, that’s not Paul and the script is well woven, with ideas started early in the film and punchlines delivered later, few loose threads left to dangle, and an ending that both makes things clear and revels in its own self-referential snark. The performances are uniformly excellent, there’s a never-ending stream of pop culture references, and an alien I’d like to hang out with. I loved it!