What if E.T. had been a foul-mouthed, pothead-party monster? That’s probably the idea the British duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost started with when they came up with Paul, which aims to do to science-fiction films what Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz did for zombie pictures and cop-buddy comedies: Satirize the genre while still delivering an over-the-top example of the form.
But something went seriously wrong with Paul. Maybe the absence of buddy Edgar Wright, who directed Pegg and Frost’s first two movies, threw the writers off. Or maybe British satire loses something when it’s handled by Americans: You miss the perspective that a foreign culture brings, so instead of wit and humor, you end up trafficking in self-congratulatory clichés and sentiment. Paul was directed by the estimable Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers, Superbad, Adventureland) and boasts a surprisingly deep cast (even Steven Spielberg makes an appearance of sorts). And yet I still sat through it with gnashing teeth and increasingly weary brow, counting the minutes until it was over. How could so many talented people collaborate on something so dull?
The blame, I think, rests with Pegg and Frost’s previous successes, which have made them a little overconfident and creatively sloppy. In Paul, they often don’t bother to write actual jokes: They settle for homage and references to other films, the way the Shrek pictures did. Recreating scenes from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in painstaking detail or having the house band at a roadside honky tonk playing the Star Wars cantina song is all well and good, but you also have to come up with something funny to happen in the foreground. Otherwise, you’re asking the audience to laugh simply out of recognition — “Hey, that movie theater marquee is advertising Duel!” — which is the laziest sort of comedy. It’s hack work.
Pegg and Frost play Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings, British nerds who travel to the United States to attend the San Diego Comic-Con, lust after girls dressed as Ewoks, contemplate buying $1,000 samurai swords and get books autographed by a disdainful science-fiction author (Jeffrey Tambor, in the first of the film’s many star cameos).
After San Diego, Graeme and Clive, whom everyone takes for gay because of their accents, hit the road in a rented RV to visit sites of alien encounters: Area 51, the Black Mailbox, Roswell, N.M. During the trip, they meet an actual alien (computer-generated and voiced by Seth Rogen) who acts like a frat boy, talks like a sailor and is trying, like so many extra-terrestrials stranded on Earth before him, to get home.
When I first saw the trailer for Paul, which has been inescapable in theaters for the past couple of months, I figured the R-rated movie had to hold back on its best stuff. But no. Practically all of Paul’s big jokes are in the trailer, and they’re still not funny when you see them again with lots of four-letter words thrown in. Unlike Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, which shook up archetypal story formulas with lots of sudden curves, Paul sticks to the tried and true and banal: The alien is a spirited sort who teaches the friends to loosen up, embrace their inner geek and get the girl. A squad of government agents (Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) is hot on the trio’s heel, eager to get Paul into government custody by any means necessary.
Kristine Wiig plays Ruth, the repressed, one-eyed daughter of a Christian fundamentalist who has her narrow horizons cosmically expanded after a mind meld with Paul (“I’m going to do a lot of fornicating,” the liberated Ruth says). Wiig gets the film’s funniest T-shirt, its funniest bit, in which her character smokes pot for the first time, and its funniest recurring gag, as Ruth puts her newfound freedom to curse to ever-inventive use. I also laughed a lot at the reveal of the full name of Bateman’s secret agent — the one time in the movie in which a reference to another film is genuinely witty, and it’s not even a sci-fi picture.
The rest of this tiresome dud plays like an R-rated movie for kids, one that forces subversive actors such as Bateman and Wiig to flash earnest, feel-good smiles directly into the camera when they discover Paul isn’t really dead, and everything is going to be all right. Did Mottola cringe while he was directing that scene as much as I did when I watched it? That’s the kind of stuff Pegg and Frost used to make fun of. Now, they’ve become part of the problem. Get thee back to England, boys, and quick.
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kristen Wiig Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, John Carroll Lynch, Blythe Danner and the voice of Seth Rogen.
Director: Greg Mottola.
Screenwriters: Nick Frost, Simon Pegg.
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nira Park.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 100 minutes. Constant vulgar language, sexual references, drug use, violence, alien nudity and naughty behavior. Opens Friday March 18 at area theaters.