Get on board.
For their first film without Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have gone across the Atlantic to make an American road comedy, but they haven’t strayed too far from home. Lacklustre trailers may have dented confidence in the pair’s latest effort, but Paul is no failure.
Clive Gollings (Frost) and Graeme Willy (Pegg) are two British nerds who have come to America to go to ComicCon before touring famous UFO hotspots in a rented RV. On their first night on the road they meet Paul (Seth Rogen), a foul-mouthed alien who’s escaped from Area 51. The trio set off on the run, pausing only for Reese’s Pieces and to sort of abduct Creationist Ruth (Kristen Wiig), while sinister Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) is hot on their trail, himself lumbered with incompetent FBI agents Haggard (Bill Hader) and O’Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio).
After something of a slow start, Paul quickly builds up speed once the titular alien is introduced. Pegg and Frost are clearly going for a bigger audience to match the bigger budget, but fans of the duo should not be disheartened. Their chemistry is still great, but Graeme and Clive aren’t as the pair’s previous creations. Of the two, Frost has more of a straight man role, which makes for a refreshing switch, but neither as cartoonish as, say, Danny Butterman. They’re socially awkward nerds, to be sure, but there’s a sense that the two leads are more toned down to balance the rest of the outlandish material.
Paul isn’t quite as much of a reference-fest as Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead, but there are more than enough affectionate in-jokes to keep us nerds happy. Director Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) sensibly doesn’t try to ape Edgar Wright. He has a fairly relaxed style which suits the tone of the movie well, and he does handle the action well. The main reference point is early Spielberg, and it reminds us just how good those films were.
While the Pegg and Frost bromance is as prevalent as ever, the whole film has an unexpected warm tone that pushes it beyond a lot of recent comedies. The odd family unit that forms as Clive, Graeme, Paul and Ruth band together to get Paul back to his home planet is incredibly likeable and easy to root for. There is, of course, plenty of foul-mouthed humour, but perhaps fewer laugh-out-loud moments than might have been expected. There are a few duff moments, but they’re quickly forgotten.
A lot of Paul’s likeability comes from the cast. Pegg and Frost have sensibly surrounded themselves with some of the best that American comedy has to offer. Blythe Danner (Meet the Parents) makes a great late appearance, trumped only by the hilariously bruising last-minute cameo of a certain sci-fi goddess. But it’s Wiig (one of the two best comics on Saturday Night Live) who wins best in show as the born again Christian who has her world opened up by Paul. Bateman (Arrested Development) is tersely great in his best film role since Dodgeball, as is the increasingly psychotic Hader (the other best comic on SNL). Paul himself is an impressive CGI creation, with motion capture and Rogen’s voice performance creating a memorable and loveable creature.
It probably won’t win the duo any new fans, and indeed may disappoint those looking for more of the same, but if you can settle into it, the film’s heart and laidback humour will almost certainly win you over.
Funny and warm, with a wonderfully dirty mouth. It doesn’t match Shaun or Fuzz’s raucous laugh count, but it succeeds on its own merits and is difficult not to warm to.