By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist February 14, 2011 at 4:03AM
From The Playlist U.K.: The pubs of London are littered with the carcasses of British comedy stars who weren't able to convert their TV success to the big screen. Countless sitcom actors made awkward, unfunny film debuts, and even big names like Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan have mostly tripped over in the cinema. The principle exceptions in recent years, however, have been the "Spaced" duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who, in reuniting with the director of that show, Edgar Wright, produced two bona-fide comedy classics in "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz."
It was the making of both men: Frost has become a reliable supporting player, and made his dramatic lead debut in an adaptation of Martin Amis' "Money" last year, while Pegg's become a franchise staple, cropping up in both "Star Trek" and the "Mission Impossible" series, and the two will team up again in Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin" later in the year. But the duo now face their greatest test so far -- separated from regular collaborator Wright, toplining a script written by themselves, on a scale and budget far greater than either of their previous vehicles on the Greg Mottola-helmed "Paul." Has it proven their undoing?
Far from it. While not an instant hall-of-famer like 'Shaun' or "Hot Fuzz," "Paul" is a warm, consistently funny, thoroughly enjoyable ride, and easily the best studio picture of the year so far; indeed, with the right push, the film should prove to be a firm crowd-pleaser; reliably entertaining across the board, it's the rare film that you feel could do with an extra ten minutes or so.
Clive (Frost) is a British sci-fi writer, who's struggled to follow up his first book, even after twenty years. With his best friend and illustrator Graeme (Pegg), they're on a pilgrimage; first to the geek mecca of Comic-Con, then in a Winnebago to a series of UFO-related sites from Nevada to New Mexico. But when they witness a car wreck, they come across the one thing they'd never thought they'd see on the trip -- a real-life alien, the titular Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), who's escaped from government custody, and needs the boys' help to get him home. The trio hit the road, pursued by three secret service agents (Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio), picking up the one-eyed daughter (Kristen Wiig) of a trailer-park owner along the way.
To be fair, the first fifteen minutes or so aren't the most promising -- an atmospheric prologue, set in 1947, sets things up nicely, but the Comic-Con section is mostly set-up, bar an amusing, if brief, cameo from Jeffrey Tambor as a legendary sci-fi writer. The easy charisma between Pegg and Frost (who are playing closer to themselves than in earlier roles) carries you through to the arrival of Paul, which is where things really kick in.
Put simply, there's a reason the little guy gets the title all to himself: he's a wonderful creation. Double Negative's FX work is world-class, making Paul easily the equal of the best of the CGI creatures like Davy Jones and Gollum, and there isn't a single moment in which he isn't totally convincing. More importantly, however, he's just kind of a delight to hang out with: profane, profound and big-hearted. Rogen is pretty much perfect in the role, as well -- even purely as a voice (and a voice that isn't exactly uncommon), he's more or less the film's MVP.
For the most part, the cast match him with aplomb. Pegg and Frost are, again, essentially playing themselves, but they play two life-long best friends as only two life-long best friends can -- the relationship's never strained for the sake of a plot contrivance, and the dynamic is more equal than in previous pairings, with Frost in particular given a chance to spread his wings a bit. Kristen Wiig is particularly terrific: far more restrained than in most of her appearances, she's rather touching as a sheltered girl finally allowed to blossom, while still getting her fair share of laughs. Bateman's also surprisingly convincing as a Terminator-style secret agent, generously letting Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio take most of the laughs in their scenes.
In fact, the film almost suffers from an embarrassment of riches. Both John Carroll Lynch, as Wiig's father, and David Koechner as a thuggish redneck are probably two antagonists too many, with neither really feeling necessary in the grand scheme of things, while Blythe Danner does some really good work, but she's introduced so late in the game that she isn't given enough time to really make an impression.
Indeed the film's biggest problem is the overstuffed third act; there's a shift in tone and a raising of the stakes which feels abrupt, and the whole thing comes across as a bit breathless. Having said that, the laughs keep coming, there are some surprisingly affecting moments, and Mottola handles the action reasonably well -- he's not going to be given the next 'Bourne' movie quite yet, but everything's clear, and well-shot.
Indeed, the whole thing moves like a train, the lengthy post-production period clearly giving the director the chance to tweak the pacing, which, other than the aforementioned, somewhat rushed conclusion, is pretty much perfect. Those expecting something more frantic and pop-arty, Edgar Wright-style, will come away disappointed -- Mottola's clearly channeling early Spielberg here (it should make a very interesting double-bill with "Super 8"), but the more old-fashioned feel to the film suits the material down to the ground, particularly with David Arnold's excellent score.
Not every joke lands, but the vast majority do, with Paul himself proving firmly quotable. The film played like gangbusters at the screening we attended, and it's got every possibility to be a real crossover hit -- sure, it's stuffed with film references ("Capturing the Friedmans" being one of the most esoteric, and the best), but it's never alienating. Its biggest stumbling block may come, however, in one of its major themes: we can't remember the last time a studio film was as out-and-proud atheist as this one, and while it's never insulting, the more religious audience members may not take it to their hearts in quite the same way.
Still, for the most part, it's a quiet triumph, and a far better film than we were expecting from the trailers, which inevitably focus on the broadest gags (which are present and correct, but work better in context). Pegg and Frost (not to mention Mottola) should be proud that they've managed to create as enjoyable and satisfying a night at the movies as we've had in a long while. [B]
"Paul" opens in the U.K. on Monday, February 14th, and premieres in the U.S. at SXSW on Sunday March 13th, with a wide release following on the 18th.