Friday, March 25, 2011

Paul / *** (R)

Graeme Willy: Simon Pegg
Clive Gollings: Nick Frost
Ruth Buggs: Kristen Wiig
Agent Zoil: Jason Bateman
Haggard: Bill Hader
O’Reilly: Joe Lo Truglio
Moses Buggs: John Carroll Lynch
Tara Walton: Blythe Danner
The Big Guy: Sigourney Weaver

And the voice of:
Paul: Seth Rogen

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Greg Mottola. Written by Nick Frost & Simon Pegg. Running time: 104 min. Rated R (for language including sexual references, and some drug use).

British writers and performers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have carved out a pretty good career for themselves lampooning popular film genres. Their smart humor first appeared on British television with their space adventure show “Spaced”. Then they wrote and starred in two well-loved feature film spoofs, the zombie flick “Shaun of the Dead” and the buddy cop movie “Hot Fuzz”. The duo is back again spoofing the sci-fi genre, this time taking aim at America’s obsession with alien contact in the movie “Paul”.

The Paul of the title is an alien who crash-landed in the American Midwest in 1947, the time period that most alien contact in America pop culture can be traced back to. Pegg and Frost play a couple of British sci-fi writers on their first trek to San Diego’s ComiCon, who decide to follow it up with a tour of America’s most famous UFO sights.

The interesting thing about “Paul” is that it doesn’t really play like a spoof of the genre. It has all the earmarks by including men in black, hotheaded rednecks, bible thumpers preaching against anything not covered in the bible, car chases, conspiracies… oh, and an alien trying to get home. Yet, it feels more like a conversation that you might have with a bunch of stoner buddies over a couple of spliffs. It’s a good conversation. It’s funny. But, it seems held together by that satisfied consciousness glaze of a good high—from my basic understanding of such things—more so than by its cinematic elements.

Frost and Pegg are sci-fi author Clive Gollings and illustrator Graeme Willy respectively. Experiencing ComiCon is a lifelong dream come true for them. They’ve published one novel that was fairly successful by pulp sci-fi standards and are having trouble finishing their follow up. This presents two good recurring jokes in the film. The first is that they get the opportunity to show their book to their idol, a sci-fi writer named Adam Shadowchild, played in a brilliant cameo by Jeffrey Tambor (“Arrested Development”). Whenever they meet anyone else throughout the course of the movie they say with pride that they met Shadowchild, to which the universal response is “Who?” The second is that they show their new novel to everyone. The cover boasts a three-breasted alien, which elicits the equally universal response “Awesome!” from men and aliens alike.

The two grown geeks encounter the alien, Paul, while on the run from a couple of rednecks that think they’re gay—another running gag. Paul escaped from the government facility where’s he’s been imprisoned since ’47. Jason Bateman (“Juno”) is FBI Special Agent Lorenzo Zoil. Say it out loud. He is hot on Paul’s trail under the direction of The Big Gun. The Big Gun’s identity is presented as if it’s supposed to be a surprise, but it’s obvious from the first moment you hear her voice over Zoil’s radio that it is the frequent sci-fi star Sigourney Weaver of such films as “Alien”, “Ghostbusters”, and “Avatar”.

Zoil enlists the help of two rookie agents, Haggard (SNL’s Bill Hader) and O’Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio, “Role Models”), who are more into the idea of being FBI agents than they are actually plausible as them. The purpose of these characters seems to be to add the inherent action and tension elements that might otherwise be missing from this spoof if left to its more laid back nature. O’Reilly is the standard buffoon of the plot who does things like looking straight at Paul in a comic book shop, believing him to be a fake alien. Haggard is more of the wannabe agent, who delivers lines like Clint Eastwood might and eventually sends everyone’s schemes off the rails with his kamikaze approach to completing the mission.

Haggard and O’Reilly also offer some slapstick relief to the more dialog driven comedy of the movie. I believe their introduction is the first time I’ve ever seen FBI field agents playing hide and seek together literally in the field. O’Reilly is the only person Clive and Graeme meet who know their sci-fi idol by name. He also wonders why the alien on their book’s cover doesn’t have four breasts, to which everyone reacts in disgust. I mean really, are we supposed to be turned on by a cow?

Along the way, Clive and Graeme also pick up Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig, “MacGruber”), a one-eyed born again Christian whom Graeme takes a liking to.  As a bible thumper, she believes Paul is a devil rather than an alien until he enlightens her and heals her other eye. This rocks the foundation of Ruth’s beliefs and soon she’s experimenting with notions she once thought would send her straight to hell, such as swearing. Delivered with Wiig’s perfection in comedic timing and intonation, the results are quite hilarious, and I imagine will provide some great outtakes on the DVD.

But, all this is secondary to the true nature of the movie, which is to ridicule all the clichéd notions of alien science fiction in America by referencing and outright stealing lines from every popular Hollywood science fiction movie of the past four decades. Half the lines in the script are lifted from one sci-fi flick or another. There are notable references from “Star Wars”, “Star Trek”, “Aliens”, “The Terminator”, “The X-Files” and dozens of other classic sci-fi movies and television shows in recent memory. In fact, one flashback depicts Paul giving Steven Spielberg (who provided his own voice) advice on how to make “E.T.”. I’m sure it’s entirely non-coincidental that Paul is sitting in a warehouse that looks remarkably like the Area 51 warehouse depicted in Spielberg’s own “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”. Plus, there’s one other major Spielberg reference in the film that I won’t point out, because if I have to, then you really won’t understand this movie.

I also don’t think it’s any mistake that Pegg and Frost tapped Greg Mottola to direct and Seth Rogen to voice the alien. Both Mottola and Rogen have had great success with their stoner-themed movies. Rogen rose to fame playing stoners in “Freaks and Geeks”, “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express”, while Mottola directed Rogen’s script “Superbad” and the excellent stoner comedy “Adventureland”. Paul spends much of the movie toking up, and like many a stoner before him he collects converts along the way. I’m also of the belief that if you were to watch this movie with someone who regularly partook of the Chronic, you would get a running commentary on all of the film’s references to other movies, which would be an invaluable supplement.

“Paul” is not as good as Frost’s and Pegg’s other two movie scripts. That’s mostly because it’s not really concerned with getting to where it’s going. Like it’s titular character, it’s content to be what it is. It’s unperturbed despite its sci-fi suspense and action roots. It’s much more about the journey than the destination. That’s not all that bad a notion, if you’re in the right mindset. Not that I’m saying you should light one up. I’m just saying.

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