It seems to me like Paul, the new film from Simon Pegg & Nick Frost, has been flying far under the radar. That’s too bad, because the two men (who, along with Edward Wright, were responsible for Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz) just might be the finest comedy duo working today. They’re each great individually, but there’s something magical that happens when the two get together. Paul doesn’t reach the comedic heights of Shaun of the Dead, but it’s pretty great nonetheless.
Pegg plays Graeme and Frost plays Clive, two geeky Brits who have traveled to the US to attend the San Diego Comic-Con and then take a driving tour of the locations of famous UFO sightings. The last thing they expect is to actually encounter a real-live extra-terrestrial: the fast-talking, good-times-loving alien named Paul who is on the run from mysterious government forces. Will the nerds be able to help Paul escape the men in black and meet up with the space-ship sent to take him home?
The movie hits the geek jokes a bit hard in the early-going (making fun of the costume-wearing crazies who attend Comic-Con is a pretty easy joke) but the film quickly settles into a nice rhythm… and then builds towards a frenetic, hilarious finish. I like comedies that are also able to get audiences to invest in the adventure story being told (I hold up Ghostbusters as a prime example of this), and I was quite pleased by how engaged I was by the film in the third act, when the chase was really on.
Although I missed Edgar Wright, it’s hard to complain with someone as talented as Greg Mottola at the helm. Mr. Mottola directed Superbad and Adventureland (a vastly underrated film that I just re-watched last week and loved as much as the first time I saw it). The man is a keen comedy director, giving his cast room to play but also keeping the film moving at a fast clip.
One could play a fun game connecting the dots from Mr. Mottola’s past work to see how he assembled such a terrific ensemble to surround Frost and Pegg. From Superbad, he brought in Seth Rogen. Mr. Rogen voices the alien Paul, and it’s brilliant, inspired casting. Once you hear Mr. Rogen’s voice emanating from the short, big-headed alien, you know what type of a film you’re in for. Rogen really sinks his teeth into the role, and his line delivery is impeccable.
By the way, I should also note that the visual effects work on Paul himself are incredible. This isn’t a movie that I expected to dazzle me with state-of-the-art visual effects, but I found myself continually impressed by the terrific work that was done to bring the alien Paul to life. His skin, his eyes — everything about the little creature felt very REAL to me. There are a few moments when the character wasn’t perfectly integrated into a scene (such as a hug moment towards the end of the film, where it seems painfully obvious that Simon Pegg was just miming a hug into the air), but those are few and far between. For the most part the visual effects work is really stunning.
From Adventureland (and also from Superbad), Mr. Mottola brought in Bill Hader, one of two somewhat hapless young federal agents who get sucked up in the pursuit of Paul. Nobody does deadpan quite like Mr. Hader. He doesn’t have many jokes in the film, yet somehow he still manages to be hilarious pretty much every moment he’s on screen. It’s an impressive achievement! Mr. Hader’s partner is played by the equally wonderful Joe Lo Truglio, whose name you might not know but who I’m sure you’d recognize.
From Arrested Development (a show for which Mr. Mottola directed several episodes), he’s brought on Jeffrey Tambor for the small role of Comic-Con superstar Adam Shadowchild and, more importantly, Jason Bateman as Agent Zoil, the man in black sent after Paul. It’s been great to see Mr. Bateman getting a lot of work post-Arrested Development, though he seems to be getting cast a lot in the role of the humorless straight-man (not only here, but in films like Juno, Hancock, Extract, Up in the Air, and more). It’s always great to watch Mr. Bateman at work, though I wish we didn’t have to wait until the very end of the movie for the character to have some fun.
There are a lot of other great actors peppering the film that I can’t forget to mention. There’s Jane Lynch as a kindly waitress at a UFO-themed diner (in a role that’s fun but so small that I kept waiting for her to make a reappearance later in the film). There’s David Koechner (recently back on TV as Todd Packer on The Office) as a red-neck tough with whom Graeme and Clive run afowl. There’s John Carroll Lynch (Shutter Island, Zodiac, Fargo) as a crazed religious zealot. There’s the wonderfully cast individual — whose appearance I dare not spoil here — who plays Jason Bateman’s boss. Just perfect, couldn’t-dream-of-how-it-could-be-better casting.
Lastly, there’s Kristen Wiig as Ruth Buggs, the one-eyed Christian with whom Graeme falls head-over-heels in love. I was never a huge fan of Ms.Wiig’s on SNL, but boy has she been knocking ‘em dead in one movie after the other for the past few years. She’s had small but killer roles in films like Knocked Up, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Extract, and Adventureland. Ruth Buggs may be her looniest character yet, but somehow she imbues the naive shut-in with a great deal of humanity — while also delivering some hysterical one-liners. (She gets a little too Mr. Spock-in-Star Trek IV at one point in the film to suit me, but that’s an issue with the script, not Ms. Wiig’s performance.)
Paul is a solidly entertaining, funny film. Mr. Pegg and Mr. Frost are in familiar territory here, tweaking sci-fi cliches while at the same time packing their film full with shout-outs to their favorite sci-fi films and moments. (Many familiar lines from other more famous movies are quoted, and many scenes are aped. My favorite is a dramatic pullback during one of Paul’s flashbacks, in which he recounts how he helped inspire one of Steven Spielberg’s most famous movies.) The film is a hoot, and not only for audience members who might fancy a trip to Comic-Con themselves. Check it out, if it’s playing anywhere near you.