Sci-fi comedy ‘Paul’ never really lifts off
In three movies, the Englishmen Simon Pegg and Nick Frost created a new kind of comedy duo. It’s true that their bodies fit neatly within the classic mold. Pegg is just south of lean. Frost is a sloppy orb. Otherwise, the humor between them arises from a dynamic more organic than shtick. They’re friends, as opposed to rivals for an audience. Neither is the straight man. To that end, the running gag in movie number three, “Paul,’’ which opens today, is that their affection is so apparent that the dumb Americans they encounter assume they’re gay.
The movie, which Pegg and Frost wrote, is a sleepy fiasco straining to achieve the same joy-buzzing, soda-pop high of the zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead’’ (2004) or the action farce “Hot Fuzz’’ (2007). Looking only at the title, “Paul’’ is in trouble. It lacks the winking glee of the first two. So does the rest of the movie. Science fiction is the genre under reconsideration this time; and unlike the previous two films, this one never achieves the exhilarating feat of exemplifying the types of Hollywood movies it wants to unpack. The airline’s lost their luggage.
Pegg and Frost have cast themselves as Graeme and Clive, a pair of English tourists who follow the hallowed science-fiction convention Comic-Con with an RV road trip through the mythical alien locales of the Southwest. It was clear what the first two films hoped to achieve: reverence and reconsideration. The new movie is a murkier affair. It’s evident that Pegg and Frost share Graeme and Clive’s enthusiasm for “Star Wars’’ and “Buck Rogers.’’ They speak Klingon to each other the way lovebirds coo. And the movie works only when its protagonists can express ecstasy for this fantasy universe. When Buck Rogers’s TV sidekick Twiki arrives for one packed event, Clive experiences the same self-combustion American teens had watching the Beatles deplane at JFK.
That sort of orgasm proves unsustainable for an entire narrative feature. But how dismaying that Clive’s smile rarely returns once the plot gets going. That’s partly a result of the woeful etchings of Frost’s surprisingly solemn performance. There’s a bigger problem. Clive and Graeme wind up sharing their trip with the eponymous creature, a vulgar, pot-bellied, cigarette-smoking stoner. Paul looks like a toy grown in a glass of tap water and sounds a touch like NBC’s wise-ass alien ALF. The voice belongs to Seth Rogen, whose husky sarcasm is even less appealing coming from someone else’s body. Sitting before a campfire, commenting on the joint he’s holding, Paul says, “This is the stuff that killed Dylan.’’ He’s not dead, says Graeme, to which Paul replies: “Isn’t he?’’ Paul also claims to have inspired “The X-Files,’’ and one flashback to 1980 puts him in a familiar-looking government warehouse as he smarmily advises Steven Spielberg over the telephone.
You can see what the movie wants with the character: to make the lost, lovable space alien irreverent and cool. But that’s not clever. It’s “ALF.’’ Paul’s wish to flee the feds and phone home upstages what, for Clive, was meant to be a platonically romantic getaway. It also derails the movie’s science-fiction hook and buries it with banal caricatures of redneck, Bible-thumping, rifle-blasting rubes, one of whom (Kristen Wiig) is literally half-blind and rescued from her ignorance and sightlessness by two Brits and an extraterrestrial. (There are also parts for Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Blythe Danner, Jane Lynch, Jon Carroll Lynch, David Koechner, and Sigourney Weaver.)
This is the first Pegg-Frost comedy in which the director Edgar Wright didn’t have a hand. You desperately miss his spark of visual wit and pure energy. Wright wrote “Shaun of the Dead’’ and “Hot Fuzz’’ with Pegg and directed both movies. Directing “Paul’’ is Greg Mottola, an American whose movies include “Superbad’’ and “Adventureland.’’ He’s matte to Wright’s gloss. You also don’t know where, in “Paul,’’ his affections lie. They appear to be scattered all over the highway.
I’m sure it was obvious fun to mock stupid people, Christian fundamentalists, and homophobes. But the pile-ups, shoot-outs, and cast of loudmouthed hicks left me with the sinking feeling that the film’s true object of affection isn’t science fiction but “Cannonball Run.’’ Hiring Weaver to play the movie’s monochromatically nasty villain suggests the filmmakers know she starred in “Aliens’’ but preferred her in “Working Girl.’’ It says everything about this movie that a few seconds after a brawl breaks out at a biker bar whose house band plays the “Star Wars’’ cantina song the action ducks outside for the less daunting challenge of gunplay and fainting. It’s hard to imagine Wright resisting the opportunity to stage an entire sequence that tries to tweak and top George Lucas.
Early in “Paul,’’ there’s a touching moment in which Graeme and Clive explain that this trip to America has long been their dream. Perhaps that’s also true for Pegg and Frost. Now that it’s come true, one hopes they return to their senses and realize that their comedy might be much better off at home.