Chemistry’s a great thing. There are piles and piles of celluloid devoted to the lovely “click” between a pair of comic buffoons: Laurel & Hardy, Abbot & Costello, Martin & Lewis, Hope & Crosby, to name but a few of cinema’s ampersanded couples. Britain’s Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, the duo bumbling through Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, perhaps the reigning comic pair of the new century, have returned in a decent new comedy about a stoner space alien, Paul (now showing at Bow Tie Cinemas.)
Paul is a good movie. That may come as a rather dull statement (for a film with a horribly dull title), but Paul is perplexing–I enjoyed the movie, and thus have to say that it’s worth seeing. There were moments that I found hilarious. And yet, like so many of those Abbot & Costello flicks that were pumped out by the yard, Paul seems lazy and indifferent, its humor working, perhaps, thanks to a long, fruitful friendship between its leads. And while I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, I can sense some great talent there, and I continue to wait for it to flower into something wonderful. Paul is good, but it is not wonderful.
Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost) are a pair of English fan boys in the states to catch San Diego’s Comic-Con, the reining party where people gather to celebrate the decline of everything good and holy. After long stretches meant to both make fun of/celebrate this culture (like Talladega Nights before it, Paul has to pull its punches so as not to offend its moneyed fan base), our heroes leave the Con and head east, through the southwest to visit all the great sites of alien encounters.
What happens next is fairly obvious from every trailer and advertisement: they run into an alien named Paul. Paul needs to get to a spaceship so he can get back to his home planet. Suffice it to say, they’re followed by a trio of “Men in Black” style baddies, most notably Jason Bateman’s oddly named Agent Lorenzo Zoil (if anyone knows why this movie’s referencing Lorenzo’s Oil, either the medicine or the movie, let me know.) Along the way, the trio’s accosted by rednecks, cops, and meet gun toting evangelicals, including Ruth Buggs (the once-promising Kristen Wiig.)
The joke about Paul is two-fold: first, that the spaceman influenced every pop culture event since his landing in the 1970s (and includes a scene where he talks to Spielberg about E.T.–and this from inside the huge warehouse seen at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.) The other kicker is that he’s a stoner who wears flip flops, low-slung shorts, and, well, sounds like Seth Rogan. A slacker alien? Wow, that must’ve taken them years to conceive.
Wiig’s Christian loony is a great example of the missed opportunities here. Though she does happen to wear the greatest t-shirt in the history of all mankind (let’s just say it’s a critique of Darwinism), for the most part she’s reduced to being a cheap love interest for Graeme. When the alien is introduced to this girl, she flips out, so the CGI creature (it’s fairly well done), does its funky mind-meld and awakens her to the world’s possibilities. Which means, of course, that she swears repeatedly and wants to fuck every minute. Note to Pegg and Frost: if you’ve seen In the Loop, then Ruth’s endless cursing does not even come close to being witty or sharp or even interesting. Though that’s true even if you haven’t seen Loop.
Also, Paul is not a very interesting character. As one may expect, he urges the nerds out of their shells, though I wouldn’t say they seem to have needed that encouragement–they don’t seem terribly unhappy. Paul smokes pot, has a big dick, moons people, flips them off and… well, you can fill in the rest.
In Paul, we have a chase, and there’s bonding, there’s bromance, all of which is directed lovingly by Greg Mottola, the man behind Superbad and Adventureland. This is a good thing. Of his prior films, the first suffered from being a Judd Apatow-influenced flick, with its cheap female characters and acting as if it were the first movie ever to address affection between men. The second was a nice, romantic, fairly honest picture about growing up and leaving your lousy home town. Both, however, were aided by Mottola’s steady hand–the pacing of Paul is one of its strengths, as it embraces this chase with the lazy allure of a great road trip.
Then there’s the endless cinematic references. I like this, but then again I grew up obsessed about Star Wars and Raiders, and clearly these guys obsessed about it as well. Every minute detail of those movies is winked at here, including a mention of the horrific Mac and Me. If you enjoy this, I get the feeling you’ll think that Paul is a masterpiece.
But what works best is the connection between Frost and Pegg. These guys have a great rapport. Though Frost is forever pegged (har!) as the fat guy who will never have a girl, Pegg’s no Bud Abbott (these guys are light years from Laurel & Hardy, so I won’t go there.) Pegg’s a dork as well, perhaps a bit more functional than his friend, but barely even that. When they’re riffing and carrying on, both of them stumbling through life gripping their comic books tightly to their chests, Paul is sweet and fun to watch.
Paul is also economical (unlike Hot Fuzz or Shaun, this one moves at a great clip), has some fascinating characters, though most of those are men–Bill Hader and Jo Lo Truglio play a pair of dopey Federal Agents, David Koechner is on hand to do his usual lovable asshole, and Jeffrey Tambor is truly funny as sci-fi writer Adam Shadowchild–every reference to his novels is brilliant (though why there’s a need for actors from the overrated Arrested Development to appear together in movies is beyond me.) But why is Sigourney Weaver marginalized into her crappy role, especially since she’s a gifted comic? Jane Lynch is wasted, and Wiig isn’t anything more than a girl to squeeze. (There comes a point, girl, where your terrible roles start to reflect on you, not on Hollywood.) You ask yourself: why? Had Pegg and Frost given these great actresses something to work with (and I forgot to mention Blythe Danner, who’s no slouch herself) this movie would’ve been so much better.
Paul’s going to get its mixed reviews (as their other movies have) and emerge, over time, as a modest classic for fans of this pair. But I’m still waiting, eagerly waiting in fact, for a real comic masterpiece from these two. There are moments in Paul that ring true and may have you rolling on the floor. Unfortunately, there also too many cheap, lazy moments that have all the punch of a two season sitcom. Nick Frost and Simon Pegg deserve better. Since they write their movies, well, they have no one to blame but themselves.