“And that’s Jenga!”
If I hadn’t already realized this fact last year after loving Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I knew it following my screening of Paul—Edgar Wright is the lynchpin of success for the quartet of he, Nira Park, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost. It began on British television with the hilarious homage-driven “Spaced” and continued onto the big screen in two very funny, very over-the-top, and very British films. Replacement director Greg Mottola is no slouch—he brought us Superbad and Adventureland after all—he just can’t fill Wright’s shoes when it comes to relationship with his leads. Mottola is actually a perfect choice for this material as it’s not only set in America, but also seems to be Pegg and Frost’s attempt at bridging their English humor with our more ignorant crassness. Paul is literally 65% profanity, 20% gay jokes—and not the thinly veiled homoerotic fun we’ve become accustomed to with these guys—and 15% clichéd schmaltz. If not for the characters subverting that sentimentality at the end by calling it out, this misfire could have been a disaster. Either way, it will be Pegg and Frost’s biggest stateside success for sure.
It’s weird, but I think the aspect I most looked forward to ended up the main reason why the film failed to live up to expectations. Pegg and Frost play science fiction geeks on holiday to visit Comic-Con and take an extraterrestrial tour of the Mid-West. One would think this is an ideal situation, having the duo practically be their own geeky selves, but alas it is not. Rather than be farcical, cultivating a world of zombies or stereotypical cop clichés, the team decided to go straight and tell a comedy that actually exists on its own merits rather than a comment on a genre. This shouldn’t be a problem; why can’t they craft something original with only the films of Steven Spielberg to use as a springboard? Perhaps it is the setting change, maybe it’s the tediousness of wanting Easter egg nods to pop culture that don’t only concern the Bearded One—Duel on a theatre marquee, the Ark’s warehouse used as a prison, a Close Encounters inspired firework, the use of the nickname Short Round, and Spielberg’s own voice getting in on the game—or it could be that the characters were too one note. And these guys do one note for a living!
The computer generated Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) becomes the most interesting role as a result with the film’s plot centering on his escape from government imprisonment after sixty years. His running into Pegg’s Graeme and Frost’s Clive is a literal running into after crashing his car. With no way to get to where he’s going while agents are hot on his tail—Jason Bateman’s Zoil and the moronic twins of Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio—he risks his life by showing himself to these foreigners who thought they’d merely be photographing infamous spots of supposed alien contact. They get the Holy Grail of geekdom instead and they don’t take the responsibility lightly. In fact, they almost don’t take the job at all. But once the threesome gets on the road and Paul’s mean-spirited humor and sick mind smooth the rough edges of a newfound friendship, the road movie aspect takes over. It’s a journey rife with comedy, but rather than smartly written inside jokes for cinephiles, the humor ends up largely uninspired and stale. There are some gems mixed in, but not enough to quicken the pace from its continuous crawl of close captures and near deaths.
The supporting cast is fantastic and brings some of the biggest laughs as they temper the simple E.T.-lite storyline. Jeffrey Tambor bookends the proceedings with his patented ambivalent narcissism; Jane Lynch has some butch hillbilly fun; David Koechner also has some butch hillbilly fun; and John Carroll Lynch does crazed, Bible-thumping Christian with the best of them. These small cameos are huge in taking the pressure off of the Pegg/Frost dynamic because they unfortunately turn somewhat pathetic quickly. Paul’s arrival should be the perfect point for them to go zany and out of the box, but they instead stay rooted in reality as jealousies creep in, morality tries to be heard, and matters of the heart push out to the forefront. This isn’t a Pixar flick, though; it’s an R-rated comedy. Frost’s sad-sack demeanor is tiresome and Pegg’s elastic face too broad to live in the world created. The team just didn’t go far enough into satire and were too raunchy to stay in the real world. Only Rogen’s animated visage—with phenomenal effects work by the way, this isn’t Jar-Jar Binks—can straddle the line for effective story and humor.
But Paul’s biting wit and candor when it comes to his powers, his irritation in humanity thinking he wants to probe their anuses, and his love for weed isn’t completely alone. Kristen Wiig helps alleviate some of the flatness with her highly eccentric Ruth Buggs. A rural Christian devout in faith, Wiig’s transformation towards science may go too far into the low-brow arena, but her adorable delivery makes it work. Her juvenile awakening to the real world and Bateman’s straight-laced, ‘I mean business’ attitude make Paul worthwhile. They aren’t afraid to join Rogen’s voice in what could have been a completely off-the-wall alien road trip. If only Pegg and Frost threw out the eye-rolling obvious bits foreshadowed from the start—“have you ever healed a human before?”—and inserted more homage like the Mos Eisley Cantina song playing at a rough and tumble bar. If only they riffed on more alien-centric cinema than just Spielberg and a flip mention of Mac and Me, they might have found the freshness utilized with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. I truly wonder what might have been if Edgar Wright were involved, steering his good friends towards greatness. As it is, Paul is merely a fun yet forgettable ride.
 (L to R) Graeme (SIMON PEGG), Ruth (KRISTEN WIIG), Clive (NICK FROST) and Paul (SETH ROGEN) try to stay on the highway in the comedy-adventure “Paul”. While in America’s UFO heartland, two sci-fi fans meet an alien who brings them on an insane road trip that will rock their universe forever. Photo Credit: Double Negative/Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2011 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
 (L to R) Agent Haggard (BILL HADER) and Special Agent Lorenzo Zoil (JASON BATEMAN) are on the case in the comedy-adventure “Paul”. While in America’s UFO heartland, two sci-fi fans meet an alien who brings them on an insane road trip that will rock their universe forever. Photo Credit: Wilson Webb Copyright: © 2011 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
 Blythe Danner, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Kristen Wiig in Universal Pictures’ Paul (2011)