SXSW Movie Review: ‘Paul’
I’m a shameful(less?) Anglophile, which in turn makes me an unabashed(ful) Francophobe, and some of the tenderest English patches of my otherwise iron heart are reserved for Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and, of course, Edgar Wright, the three gents who, through their collaborations in such fine works as the sitcom Spaced, and the films, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, demonstrated a mutual respect, appreciation, love for American pop-culture—something I’ve seen very seldomly outside of America; in fact, it’s so rare, I don’t think there’s actually a term for it (Americaphile? Colonialphile? Washingtonian-a-philia?). So when there’s a project featuring at least two of three, I take notice.
And now we have Paul wherein another favorite, Seth Rogen, voices the titular Paul, an alien who came crashing to earth some 60 years ago and was immediately kidnapped by the US and taken to mysterious Area 51, never to be heard from again…
…until 60 years later, specifically while two British, alien-obsessed Americaphiles Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are making a tour across the US on their way to Comic-Con, simultaneously hitting every E.T.-related point of interest along the way. Naturally that leads them through the (evidently) lone highway toward Area 51, with the only other car on the road being piloted by the freshly escaped Paul. Crashes ensue, and the boys meet Paul, who explains he’s fleeing from government agents and asks, his ride being totaled, to tag along. He does, of course, and farther along the way they attracted the attention/pick up a collection of equally strange and terrible characters, including flighty Bible-thumper Ruth (Kristen Wiig), her truck-driving, shotgun-wielding father (John Carroll Lynch), and a handful of spooky government agents (Jason Bateman, Bill Hader among them), the collection of which all builds up for the big cameo at the end.
Paul is a pretty fun movie, and I defy any critic to pan it outright or even say they didn’t smile more than a few times. This is a mild, warm crowd-pleasure, with one notable flaw (it isn’t exactly a “problem—and remember, I’m very precise about terminology): Paul wants to be an Edgar Wright movie, and it tries hard to be an Edgar Wright movie, and before long you’re really wanting it to be an Edgar Wright movie, too. But it’s not.
One of great strengths of Wright that Paul lacks the flair for seamlessly inserting appropriate references into everyday speech—that is, the fact that they look funny and drop references at every point is not the joke; he takes their way of speaking as a given and then makes jokes. Paul never quite realizes that. Mottola nails some visual laughs with his references, but his characters are just flat and not very funny, including Paul himself (though I do have to admit that his Dylan joke was killer).
I really like Pegg and Frost, but here the two feel like they could have been played by any popular duo, or any up-and-coming one. And this is the first time I ever felt Frost and Pegg didn’t have any chemistry. There’s an early scene in a bar where the two are ruffed up by some backwoods hooligans, but aside from that, Pegg’s more interested in Paul and, later, Wiig’s character, and in addition to that, there’s the sidestory of Bateman and Hader and Wiig’s character’s father’s chase sequence.
But, again, I don’t fault Paul simply because it’s not an Edgar Wright movie; rather I think Mottola’s trying to make someone else’s movie, and while he succeeds on some levels, ultimately it may be at Paul’s expense, since it doesn’t seem like he quite has someone else’s style mastered (and Mottola’s own dryness in films such as Adventureland and Superbad is easily strong enough on its own).
Of course, none of that matters if the movie’s really funny, and Paul’s funny just some of the time. I liked the actors, I liked the idea, I did laugh at some of the references, but it’s just some light fun, and light on the funny, too.