It’s no longer enough that aliens exist. Now they have to act exactly as we do. Or, at least, as the immature eighteen-year-olds we all were at a certain point. The inherent flaw of Paul, the newest comedy written by and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, is that, by making the title character a foulmouthed, wisecracking, beer-chugging, pot-smoking, English-speaking dude, he becomes the most human of them all. The best we get is that he can make himself invisible by holding his breath, he can bring dead animals back to life – and, of course, he sports a classic Little Green Man appearance.
We, of course, know zilch about authentic extraterrestrial life (contrary to what the conspiracy theorists will have you believe), so it is technically conceivable that aliens do actually behave this way. Until we get some actual proof, however, I’d prefer we stick to the standard Hollywood model: They can’t speak a human language, they have no understanding of our customs, and they probe the human anus.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m very picky when it comes to my sense of humor. Pegg and Frost clearly have some very funny ideas, although I wonder if they’re aware that not all of them translate visually; some things are simply better on paper. They also have a tendency to limit their jokes to specific genres, in effect alienating (pardon the pun) sizeable audiences. What Paul has going for it is that, as a parody of science fiction, it makes loving and often hilarious references to films that just about everyone has seen, including Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Aliens. They were smart to go that route. But what if they had opted for less widely accepted films, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner? If references were made to them, I guarantee you they would be understood only by those deeply invested in science fiction fandom.
In the film, Pegg and Frost play Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings, British nerds in the U.S. who take a self-guided tour of all the Southwestern sci-fi hotspots, starting at San Diego Comic-Con. As they travel in a rented RV towards Roswell, they witness a car accident on a lone desert road; when they go to see if anyone is hurt, they find that no one is in the vehicle. They decide to call for help. Just then, an alien emerges from the darkness, and warns them to put the phone down. His name – at least, his Earth-given nickname – is Paul, a computer-generated character brought to life via performance capture and the voice of Seth Rogen. Given the personality of the role, I suppose Rogen was the right casting choice. Still, I’m face with an inescapable realization, namely that, apart from his appearance in Funny People, he’s incapable of playing anyone other than himself.
Long story short: Paul crashed on Earth back in 1947, was taken into custody by the American government, and has now decided it was time to escape and return to his own planet. Graeme and Clive decide to help him. Needless to say, their comedic misadventures will be numerous. They will eventually gain a fourth passenger: Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), who has an eye condition and was raised in a trailer park by a Bible-thumping man named Moses (John Carroll Lynch). Ruth will not only have her faith shaken by Paul, but will also want to indulge in what she thought was sinful. This character contributes absolutely nothing of substance to the story; she’s merely a tool to generate unnecessary laughter. This is mostly achieved through swearing, of which she needs a lot of practice.
Hot on Paul’s trail is Special Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman), who’s under the command of a mostly unseen government official known only as The Big Guy (Sigourney Weaver, which is admittedly an inspired casting choice). Zoil, a ruthless professional who never cracks a smile, has to contend with inept rookie agents (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Trulio), who are kept in the dark as to the nature of their mission. One of them is a sci-fi nerd like Graeme and Clive. Although this leads to a number of tiresome and repetitive jokes about how many breasts a cartoon alien should have, it’s still funnier than when learn that Zoil’s first name is Lorenzo.
This film does feature some very clever insider references, and I will not spoil any of them for you. It even manages a few laugh-out-loud moments. But on the whole, movies like Paul just don’t do it for me. Perhaps I’m flawed in that I’m really not on the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost bandwagon; I missed Hot Fuzz, and although I enjoyed Shaun of the Dead as an homage to zombie films, I never thought it was a comedic masterpiece. But I think I was most bothered by the title character, who must represent some adolescent fantasy of the Cool Alien. It sort of fits into what many consider the sole criteria of electing a U.S. President: If he seems like a guy you would want to have a beer with, it wouldn’t matter that he says nothing important and doesn’t have much to offer.