Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Unidentified Friendly Object: PAUL

Greg Mottola’s Paul may not have the emotional resonance of his two previous efforts (the excellent coming-of-age films Adventureland and Superbad), but it’s still decent entertainment. It’s a warm geeky embrace of a movie, a sci-fi action comedy, jam-packed with winking references. If you’re like me, the kind of person who can appreciate a collage of homage derived from nearly every notable piece of 70’s and 80’s sci-fi (from E.T., Star Wars, and Back to the Future to Aliens, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Repo Man), you’re in for a treat. But even if every single reference flies over your head, I can’t imagine having the fun entirely pass you buy. Here’s a comedy that really knows how to utilize its talented cast as it builds a satisfying collection of set-ups and pay-offs. It’s an efficient sugary treat.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who also wrote the screenplay, star as two British nerds on an American road trip that starts at Comic-Con and winds its way through famous southwestern UFO hotspots like Area 51. While on a lonely stretch of road, they happen upon a car accident that introduces them to Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an escaped alien in desperate need of a ride. It turns out that this little green dude is on the run from the feds (a straight-laced Jason Bateman and two goofball underlings Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) and he wants the nerds to help him flee to a remote patch of wilderness where he will meet his fellow aliens for a ride back to his home planet. Along the way, the trio picks up, under strange duress, a fundamentalist Christian woman (Kristen Wiig) who has a hard time believing in science, specifically that aliens are possible. What do you expect? Her T-shirt reads “Evolve This!” which accompanies a drawing of Jesus shooting Darwin in the face.

This is all so much broad shtick, that’s for sure. The characters are silly caricatures and the plot is just a mash of influences grafted onto a road movie. It’s a little disappointing see so much talent go towards something that, however much fun it provides moment to moment, comes up feeling awfully minor. But Mottola’s coming off of two great films and so are Frost and Pegg who together wrote and starred in director Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, terrific, sneakily moving, satires of zombie and cop films respectively. There’s a sense that, however minor, a lot of earnest energy went into Paul. Perhaps there’s a feeling that this is simply talented people expending great amounts of effort on goofing off. It embodies a geeky love of the minor details of sci-fi lore. The cast gamely throws itself into the ridiculousness and Mottola, with cinematographer Lawrence Sher, has a nice eye for slick widescreen southwestern spaces in which to arrange his silly, splashy, sometimes explosive, gags.

Its sense of slightness and its sense of humor ultimately balance each other out and Paul evens out at a reasonably enjoyable level of fun. Despite a few too many gay panic jokes, it’s theme of acceptance and open-mindedness is ultimately welcome. The comedy is a self-reflexive and self-aggrandizing look at fandom that posits that neat sci-fi spectacles can draw people together. That may not be exactly true, sci-fi fanboys can be awfully vicious, but if the world at large were as giddily geeky as these characters, people just might have a few more reasons to get along, bonding over the cool little moments found in cult classics.

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