Simon Pegg and Nick Frost built up gallons of good will with their genre parodies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.
The British duo squander plenty of it with Paul, their new comedy about two geeks trying to save an alien from the government’s clutches.
Paul’s mean-spirited mockery of Christianity won’t endear it to audiences with even a sprinkling of religion. But Paul’s bigger sin is the lack of genuinely sharp humor, the kind that lifted Shaun and Fuzz above the likes of those lazy Scary Movie-style parodies.
The film does amass major geek points by paying nonstop homage to sci-fi classics like Star Wars and ET, but ultimately a film must stand on its own. By the time a classic line from Aliens is recycled it’s hard not to think, “OK, enough. Your VHS collection rocks. Move on.”
Pegg and Frost play Graeme and Clive, two Brits visiting San Diego for a Comic-Con event and the chance to visit some real-life UFO sites. Their rented RV is nearly run off the road by a car driven by a runaway alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Seems Paul is trying to get back home but an tireless FBI agent (Jason Batemen) wants to capture him first.
The affable alien has spent the last few decades sharing his otherworldly wisdom with the government. Now, with nothing left to share, agents want to literally wring the last bits of information out of him.
That won’t happen if our lovable Brits can keep Paul a few steps ahead of the law.
Along the way they pick up a one-eyed fundamentalist named Ruth (Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig), whose faith gets shaken by the very sight of a pot-smoking alien.
Paul is aggressively anti-Christian despite the protestations of its cast members. One might forgive Wiig’s character, who sports a shirt with Jesus blowing away Charles Darwin, for being a conduit for a steady stream of jokes. Once Ruth casts aside her religion she starts spewing vulgarities with abandon, a tic Wiig nails with her droll delivery.
The real punishing caricature is Ruth’s fundamentalist father, a man given few lines but a constant, razed look in his eye. By the final reel he’s committed a horrific act which only underlines how the film’s creators see “his kind.”
And if that doesn’t cinch matters, another character dismisses people of faith with a tossed off line, “you can’t win with these people.”
Religious groups, already waging ideological battles against MTV’s Skins and the upcoming ABC show Good Christian Bitches, may let Paul slide on by. But will gay rights groups protest how Paul uses the word “fag” in a derogatory manner much like they protested the word “gay” in the trailer for The Dilemma?
At first blush, Paul seems scientifically engineered for the likes of Pegg and Frost, comic actors with a heady sense of meta-gags and the chops to pull them off. Normally, the pair work with fellow Brit Edgar Wright, but for Paul they’ve teamed up with director Greg Mottola of Superbad fame.
Not a bad switcheroo, but the results prove lackluster.
The crush of limp running gags doesn’t help. People keep thinking Graeme and Clive are a gay couple (har har) and that Paul is gearing up to deliver a heaping helping of anal probes.
Pegg and Frost, so good together in past vehicles, feel like they’re cashing in on their bromance history. Frost’s character is particularly prickly, and even when the screenplay fleshes out the reasons why it’s hardly revelatory.
Rogen fares better, even if he’s still trading on his stoner image from Pineapple Express. He gives Paul a rat-a-tat-tat of counter-culture lines, but he also finds the sentimental side of the bug-eyed lost soul.
Paul should have hit theaters in PG-13 form, since a younger audience won’t mind the sillier sequences and will happily name check all the movies referenced from start to finish. It’s aggressively R-rated for the wrong reasons. It heaps on vulgarity without the stinging effect found in a Judd Apatow production. Sure, Ruth is trying to understand how to properly incorporate F bombs into conversation, but the screenplay is littered with other key players speaking crassly to little comic effect.
Paul also squanders a top flight supporting cast, from Bateman’s unblinking G-man to Joe Lo Truglio as an agent with a soft spot for all things sci-fi. And, for once, Jane Lynch drops by a movie set and doesn’t steal every scene she’s in.
Paul coaxes a steady stream of grins for much of its running time without ever delivering a belly laugh. The film may be remembered more for its spirituality bashing than any comic inspiration.