Silver Screen: Paul ***1/2
Comedy duo Nick Frost and Simon Pegg have a knack for making geek-centric comedy palatable to the masses. They turned the zombie film on its rotten ear in the excellent Shawn of the Dead even before the genre had become a cultural meme, much less before the undead had been run back into the ground by a few dozen movies, horror novels, and comic books. And Hot Fuzz-- though it didn't do much for this reviewer/complainer/grouch-- was steeped in shoot 'em up lore that required at least an associate degree in action movies to appreciate.
But Paul, their latest collaboration (notably sans director and cowriter Edgar Wright), seems not only less accessible than their previous work, but specifically designed for the geek set, a long running in-joke created specifically to debut at ComicCon.
In fact, after a brief prologue in which the title character, a chatty gray alien voiced by Seth Rogen, crash-lands on Earth, the movie actually opens at ComicCon amid flocks of pale geek-girls bedecked in Princess Leia gold bikinis. There we meet aspiring but uninspired sci-fi writer Clive (Frost) and his illustrator and partner in nerdery, Graeme (Pegg). The two Brits have crossed the Atlantic for a pilgrimage to the convention, plus an RV tour of UFO hotspots in the American Southwest.
Despite their obsession with stories about extraterrestrials and their professed beliefs in the existence of little green men, they're stunned when they actually run across one on a lonely stretch of desert highway.
Paul is a creature from another world stranded by a spaceship accident who has been, until now, content to live the easy life on Earth. He's sequestered in an unregistered government facility where he spends his days chain-smoking and chatting up both scientists and science-fiction writers, giving the government tech tips while playing muse to Steven Spielberg himself (in a fun but brief voiceover appearance). But recently Paul has come to realize that the Americans have some unpleasant plans for him once his usefulness runs its course, so he steals a car and, with the help of a friend on the inside, tries to set up a rendezvous where his homeworld boys can come give him a lift. He hooks up with our two schlubby besties, who agree to ferry him to the meetup with the alien escape crew, but all the while they're pursued by a coldly calculating government agent (Jason Bateman) and his two clueless lackies (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio).
Paul is a riff on a number of alien-buddy pictures-- in fact, it often seems to be a riff on just about every sci-fi movie ever made-- but it's actually less indebted to classics like E.T. than to the ostentatious eighties E.T. knockoffs. Imagine a vulgar version of Mac and Me as rejiggered by writers with more comedic ambition. (And, yes, along with every other DVD in the sci-fi aisle, Paul is sure to namecheck Mac and Me directly, too.)
Despite the flimsy premise, though, Paul works pretty well, in large part because the alien buddy in question is, weirdly enough, the movie's grounding force. If Graeme, Clive, and their trio of Men in Black antagonists are a bit hysterical, Paul is eminently laid back, not even so much a stoner cliché as a jaded but generally unworried slacker. He's been sitting around enjoying the pleasures of Earth for decades now, and his been-there-done-that attitude-- not to mention vastly superior interpersonal communication skills-- is a foil to everyone else's goofiness. It's an odd turn, and it works, especially if you aren't suffering from Seth Rogen fatigue. (For the record: I am not.)
The movie's other ace in the hole is Kristen Wiig as Ruth, a fundamentalist Christian wallflower whose moralist's faith is deeply shaken by proof of alien life. With her belief system shattered, she hitches a ride with Graeme, Paul, and Clive in hopes of exploring a world she's mostly shut out before, hilariously experimenting with sex and swearing with mixed results. But while the Brit writers have plenty of fun poking at Ruth's withering fundamentalist beliefs, they're careful to keep some elements of her faith intact, and her character's intractable sweetness helps form the movie's emotional core.
That's what ultimately elevates Paul beyond comic pandering to its narrow (but, ironically, not so literally narrow) demographic of Con-goers and cosplayers, even as it dispenses a few dozen lines of dialogue from sci-fi movies past and sneaks in plugs for seemingly every comic book from Dynamite Press and all things Robert Kirkman and Dan Clowes. By the time the utterly unsurprising surprise ending arrives and Sigourney Weaver shows up for one last string of references-- did Pegg, Frost, and director Greg Mottola (Adventureland, Superbad) really think we wouldn't recognize Weaver's absolutely distinctive voice?-- the in-jokes have become burdensome, but, with more than a little help from Wiig, Paul has discovered a touching streak of humanity.