Despite neither Nick Frost nor Simon Pegg playing this films titular character, no one is under any impression that its main appeal is anything other than the two of them. Their dynamic has been at the core of two beloved comedy films and a TV series, which I may as well name as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Spaced as every review of any film featuring the duo will have to name check at least one of these modern comedic staples.
Another name I have to throw into the mix is Edgar Wright, who directed the holy Pegg/Frost trinity and collaborated with Pegg on the scripts for the two aforementioned feature films. Despite their success through their close association with each other, they predictably wanted to try things solo. Pegg has had varied successes with small roles in big action blockbusters Star Trek and Mission: Impossible III, Wright has gone on to critical acclaim with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Frost has had a far more muted career with his most notable film separate from the others being The Boat that Rocked. Paul is sort of reunion with Wright being the only hold out, but I would guess that Pegg and Frost wanted to see what they can achieve without Wright, as they co-wrote the film.
Now, I presume that the average film audience has no knowledge of Edgar Wright’s involvement in Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead. So to some people this probably appears to be the third instalment in what has been named as the “Blood and Ice-cream Trilogy”. Those better versed will know that the real third film in this series has been named The World’s End and is still in pre-production. I would love a film in the same vein as the first two, and that is kind of what I was hoping for in Paul, but Paul is definitely not part of the series.
The first two were perfect send ups of the genre they inhabited, deriving its humour from the clichés and tropes associated with them. Paul is less of a strict genre film, it is more of a comedy with science fictions elements, the humour could arguably work independent of the genre it is set in. Its comedy comes from the tropes being atypical; yes there is a little grey alien but the comedy comes from its human like qualities as opposed to how a character like this would actually be in a serious sci-fi genre film. The zombies in Shaun of the Dead were just regular-ass zombies, they behaved exactly as you would expect, and they derived comedy from them through the characters reactions. Paul is just a comedy character who happens to be an alien, he looks like one but he is funny simply because he is so human.
Upon realisation that this is more of a straight comedy film with a sci-fi premise as opposed to a genre spoof the film is a lot easier to take. It makes you realise that you are not going to get the Hot Fuzzian film you had hoped for, and to just take it for what it is. It may be unfair to compare it to the two Blood and Ice-Cream films but when these two actors are present, and the advertising ties the films together, it is unavoidable.
Frost and Pegg play Clive Gollings and Graeme Willy, respectively. They are a pair of English comic and sci-fi nerds on a road trip through America’s UFO hotspots. The two find more adventure than they had anticipated when they meet Paul, voiced by Seth Rogen, an alien on the lam from the government. They of course harbour him immediately, and their road trip turns into a mission to get Paul home. Others join along the way with Kristen Wiig portraying a naïve but devote Christian: Ruth, who enters as love interest for Graeme. Jason Bateman plays a big nasty government special agent, since every film featuring a friendly alien needs one of those. Also an actress, so closely associated with the science fiction genre that I immediately presumed she must be playing herself, has a minor and ambiguous role as “The Big Guy”. I don’t know how much of a surprise it was intended as but the film built it up as such so I might as well to.
Paul the character is ostensibly Seth Rogen in a little grey alien shaped package. Everything Rogen has become notable for is present; there are dick jokes, weed smoking and bare-buttocksery. He is likeable, but the only real originality in his characterisation comes from the fact that it is an overly familiar role being filled by an alien. He is more the main character than I would have liked, Pegg and Frost’s chemistry is downplayed, they seem to interact more with the alien than they do with each other, and with the introduction of more character they become part of a group rather than the two standouts. The idea of two British characters in a typical gross-out US comedy film is a refreshing idea; it could have toyed with the difference in humour stylistics but the film instead ops for a safer and all around American comedy style. Surprising to me since the film is written by the two Brits.
Its predictability in its humour also carries over to the story as a whole. The film’s set ups of upcoming plot point’s verge on painfully obvious. How exactly Paul’s ability to revive animals from the dead will come into play is never in question. But to make it more glaringly obvious he is of course asked if he has ever revived a human (not a spoiler because the film makes it more blatant than this write up ever could). Ruth and Graeme’s drama free romantic path is also clear from their initial scene together. While the film is not trying to reinvent anything, the predictable aspects of the film just seem like lazy and bad writing. I aimed to avoid reverting to comparisons to Shaun of the Dead, but can anyone really say that they expected that film to become a drama lead zombie film an hour into its run time? That sort of unpredictability really set that film apart in a way that just makes Paul seem mundane.
The referential humour that the two Edgar Wright films are famous for is also apparent in Paul but in an entirely different way. What Paul alludes to is far more familiar to the general public. It makes call backs to Back to the Future and Indiana Jones mainly through the uses of famous quotes. Wrights films also did this but the references where far deeper and far more extensive knowledge of the subject matter in question is required to get the majority of them. Paul plays it safe and uses broader references that can be understood by more less anyone, but there are still enough nerdy in-references to keep the hard-core sci-fi fans happy. This is usually to the films strength but it becomes distracting in the last 20 minutes when it becomes a movie-quote-a-thon.
I really did enjoy this film a lot more than it probably sounds like I did. It is a straight forward no surprises comedy film. I usually prefer my comedy with a sense of intelligence and wit about it, and Paul certainly is not that. It is more entertainment based than it is laugh out loud funny. If you like the duo you will not be disappointed. They are their usually cheeky, funny and charming selves. It probably will not resonate with you, but you should enjoy it.