Englishmen Nick Frost and Simon Pegg carved out niche in comedy as the voice of all beta males: understated, vulnerable types whose greatest expression of masculinity comes in the form of obsessions with sci-fi and action movies. With Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Frost and Pegg (with director Edgar Wright), showed beta males how fun it could be making a movie to amuse friends. The trio has, in turn, built a fan base that will shout from the rooftops that ‘Han shot first’ but lack the nerve to talk to women.
The dearth of significant others in this demographic means more disposable income to be spent on comic books and collector’s edition light sabers. So Frost and Pegg as the main characters of the sci-fi/comedy Paul was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, it is difficult to believe that much thought went into executing a story on the same level as anything Pegg and Frost have done on in England.
Paul begins at the San Diego Comic-Con, an annual assembly of the geek world’s most creative minds and the people who’ve made it into a business. Pegg and Frost play Graeme and Clive, two sci-fi mavens who take full advantage of their trans-Atlantic jaunt by also visiting the sites of alleged alien activity across the southwest. During their journey by RV, Graeme and Clive encounter an alien named Paul, who crash-landed in Wyoming in 1947.
Paul, voiced by Seth Rogen, asks Graeme and Clive for a ride that includes a stop at his crash site and the location where he will be picked up to return to his home planet. But an ominous government agency stands in the way of Paul’s interests, which makes Graeme and Clive’s adventure way more dangerous than picking up any old extraterrestrial hitchhiker.
A cavalcade of characters gets mixed up in this unusual trip, including two bumbling federal agents (SNL’s Bill Hader and Childrens Hospital’s Joe Lo Truglio), a pair of rednecks (Anchorman‘s David Koechner and Friday Night Lights’ Jesse Plemons), a sheltered Christian (SNL’s Kristen Wiig), a hawk-eyed government operative (everything out lately’s Jason Bateman), a saucy waitress (Jane Lynch of Glee) and Sigourney Weaver, whose Dr. Claw-esque role in this movie climaxes with an insulting reveal (since everyone who would appreciate this movie’s field of references certainly knows what Ripley from Alien’s voice sounds like).
Director Greg Mattola (Superbad, Adventureland) realized Pegg and Frost’s script, which couples blue humor with its many sci-fi homages. While Pegg and Frost are no strangers to this wheelhouse, Shaun and Hot Fuzz both had multi-dimensional characters about which the audience immediately cares. But despite Pegg and Frost’s proven record, it seems like their best effort with this script brought to life hovers between predictable and mediocre. The ideal film would transcend the realm it depicts to reach a wider audience, and Paul achieves that feat if the wider audience to which Paul reaches out is 10-year-old boys (or geeks in training…so, yeah…it doesn’t).
The rift between such strong casting and Paul’s lackluster script suggests to cynical moviegoers that the budget allocation to CGI and screen talent was inversely proportional to the amount spent on much needed script revisions that would have made characters sympathetic and mesh the science fiction jokes more seamlessly with the plot.
As it stands, Paul is a film that has more value as a live-action scavenger hunt for geek fare than a road comedy about how people react when their fantasies of adventure get forced up them. Sadly, wit at its basest won the battle over the artful comedy for which Pegg and Frost are known. In other words, Paul is a movie about nerds made for idiots.