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"Paul" Is a Road Comedy with Some Extraterrestrial Attitude

By Daniel Walber | Spout August 9, 2011 at 1:29AM

This review was originally published March 18, 2011. It has been reposted for its home video release.
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This review was originally published March 18, 2011. It has been reposted for its home video release.

I was expecting “Paul,” to be kind of mediocre. I’m not entirely sure why, though it probably had something to do with the enormous billboard on 8th Avenue here in New York. Regardless, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it. In hindsight, I think that could have a lot to do with why I enjoyed it so much. Low expectations can help, right? Anyway, “Paul” is a pretty good movie. There are some genuinely hilarious moments, and it keeps you laughing. The work from Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and director Greg Mottola is solid, and the film has a good energy, which is crucial in a road comedy; too much slack and you just have dead space.

The film opens with Brits Clive (Frost) and Graeme (Pegg), respectively an aspiring sci-fi writer and his illustrator best friend, at San Diego’s Comic-Con, thrilled to be in America and excited to head out on their road trip across the Southwest. They plan to visit all of the famous UFO sighting locations and are having a good time until Paul, an alien voiced by Seth Rogen, crashes his car and asks them to help him escape US Government custody. After a bit of hesitation, they take him in and the movie is off and running.

To keep the plot moving along, “Paul” effectively uses the tropes of the road comedy genre. There are some delightful cameo performances, notably Jeffrey Tambor as the established (and somewhat snooty) sci-fi writer Adam Shadowchild and Jane Lynch as a ridiculous waitress at an alien-themed diner. Sigourney Weaver is delightful in her brief but memorable turn as the eventual villain, built up in classic road comedy style; you don't see her until the end, but her voice comes through via phone calls and the occasional shot of an office in which she remains mysteriously off-camera.

There’s also the obligatory character or two picked up along the way. Kristen Wiig is Ruth, a sheltered trailer-park Christian, and she's followed later on by Blythe Danner as an old friend of Paul. They’re both quite good, although some of the humor around Wiig gets old a little too quickly; as she loses her faith, she discovers she can swear without fear of the devil, which starts funny and then just turns tired as no one seems interested in letting it go.

“Paul” also makes great use of the road comedy motif of the multi-sided chase, a number of characters all driving as fast as they can at the same time. Paul and his human friends are on the run, and they end up being followed by Ruth’s shotgun-toting father, two somewhat incompetent government agents, and their more effective boss, Agent Zoil (a pitch-perfect Jason Bateman). As the film picks up steam, there are more and more sequences that cut back and forth between our heroes and those shooting after them, which keeps the energy up and creates both narrative and comic momentum.

Of course, there are some problems. The “trailer-park Christian learns to cuss” joke expires after about five minutes, and it’s not the only thing that gets old. There’s a little too much in the way of alien sex and bodily function humor, which really seems like a crutch by the end of the movie. And people keep asking if Graeme and Clive are gay, which really just makes absolutely no sense. Look at the below picture. Does it seem like they’re getting it on in the back of their RV to you?

The joke is almost funny the first time, but after a point you begin wondering if this kind of stupid gay joke is now just an obligatory “no homo” moment written into every buddy comedy geared to straight men. There’s a particularly embarrassing moment in which Paul tries asking Clive about it, but he can’t get his innuendo across and ends up miming sex; really, it’s as if they just wanted to have fun making a CGI alien move like that. The whole bit just gives the movie the character of a generic dude comedy, not much more interesting than the many others of its type released in the last few years.

And to an extent that is definitely true. This is not Pegg and Frost’s best work as writers (or actors, really), and it’s not as funny as Mottola’s previous movies. “Paul” falls into the category of well-executed comedy; it’s a solid piece of work that does what it sets out to do. It’s a pretty good road movie, with enough laughter and energy to keep you entertained. It’s just not much more than that.

"Paul" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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