Greg Mottola’s “Paul” – An overstuffed road trip

For some, Paul might provoke a sense of nostalgia. It is chock full of so many elaborate and perfectly executed pop culture references that you’ll spend far more time knowingly chuckling than actually laughing. It has all the ingredients of a solid road-trip comedy – Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) are a pair of unabashed nerds who take an RV across the American Southwest in search of gorgeous scenery and all things UFO. Halfway to Roswell, they run into an honest-to-goodness alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Oh, and did I mention that Pegg and Frost, the beloved comedic duo from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, also wrote the screenplay? And that they secured director Greg Mottola, whose last film made my Top 10 of 2009?

With all of these players involved, I am baffled as to why Paul is staggeringly unfunny for most of its runtime. The first 15 minutes, in which we get to know Graeme and Clive, are downright tedious. Pegg and Frost have their usual rapport, but their naturalistic banter is saddled with an overabundance of scatological humor and enough gay jokes to overwhelm Adam Sandler. Pegg and Frost’s relationship definitely got stronger as the film went on, but this first act was bad enough that I found myself wondering if, in a world where I hadn’t seen their prior collaborations, I would have bought them as friends at all.

Nonetheless, the film becomes truly enjoyable as soon as Rogen enters the picture. Rogen’s voice performance is hilarious and raunchy (like Rogen himself), and the repartee between Pegg, Frost, and Rogen (which allegedly contained a great deal of improv) is definitely where Paul is at its strongest. And that’s just what this film needed! Bring these giants of geek comedy together, and just let them be funny with each other. Instead, there were far too many scenes that dragged on for just a bit too long in the service of gags that aren’t nearly as funny as the movie thinks they are. When Paul brings a bird back to life with his E.T. mind-magic and then eats it, I chuckled (at least, I chuckled when I saw it in the trailer). But did it merit such an awkward pause in both story and comedic timing? Not at all. And there were a dozen other gags that felt just as expendable.

I’ve omitted some characters thusfar. Jason Bateman plays Agent Zoil, the ruthless man-in-black who is doggedly pursuing Paul. And I must say – this is one of Bateman’s finest performances. Bateman is the consummate straight man in every comedic project, and to see a straight-man who is heavily armed and committed to tracking down and killing every comedic character in the bunch is frightening and hilarious. Kristen Wiig is also in the mix as Ruth, the daughter of a Christian fundamentalist, and quasi love interest for Graeme. I don’t have much to say about this character – mocking religious nuts is pretty passé (and a bit too easy), and Ruth and her dad were perhaps the most extreme indications that this script was written by a pair of Brits who only had an eye for American caricature. The film simply felt overstuffed with both one-note characters and underused comedic talents (including Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Jeffrey Tambor, Jane Lynch, David Koechner, and one more I won’t spoil), who had very little to do with their brief screen-time except make the audience wonder why they showed up.

The most frustrating thing about Paul is that there seems to be a truly great road-trip adventure film at the center of it. Pegg, Frost, and Rogen (and eventually Wiig) are an affable group, and the wide open spaces and scenery look gorgeous (can’t go wrong with the American Southwest). Blythe Danner shows up as Tara Walton, the adult version of the little girl who first discovered Paul’s crash site, and I must say – this is a backstory that deserved more screen time. This film teases the kinds of strong relationships found in E.T. and Close Encounters, but seems too timid to actually embrace them. Every time it comes close, it wastes time on a throwaway line or shot-for-shot scene remake of one of those films instead. Comedy cannot survive on referential gags alone, and Paul‘s focus on them is entirely to its detriment.

FilmWonk rating: 4.5 out of 10

Sidenote: Kudos to the effects team that designed the alien Paul. This was a perfect fusion of reality and CG character design, on the same level of realism as District 9, but with a much more cartoonishly designed alien (which makes it even more impressive).

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