If Paul (2011) is a disappointing film—and it is—it is only because the men behind it have proven themselves capable of far greater things. At worst, Paul is incredibly average, but having been written by and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, one expects more.
Directed by Greg Mottola (Superbad), the film finds Pegg and Frost as a couple of sci-fi geeks, Grame Willy and Clive Gollings respectively, who happen to encounter an alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Paul needs the men to take them on a road trip to an unspecified location, and because they’re shocked as much as anything else, they agree.
The script seems to mainly ask that the viewer laugh at the notion of a wisecracking, swearing, smoking, down to Earth alien. While momentarily shocking and initially amusing, after a while (and far before the end of the film), it feels as though it may have been far funnier to just have Seth Rogen in makeup than to listen to his voice coming out of a CGI alien. The problem isn’t that the alien looks bad or that Pegg and Frost fail to interact appropriately with it, it’s just that it’s a one note joke and it could have been a funnier one note joke.
Pegg, Frost (who also starred together in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), and the film are at their best here when it’s just the two men interacting. Once they pick up Paul or Kristen Wiig’s trailer park manager or start running from Jason Bateman’s federal agent, Zoil, the entire thing goes downhill.
It all starts out well enough though. The beginning of the movie, with Willy and Gollings at Comic-Con is brilliant. The two men travel around the convention seeing and talking to those one truly believes attend Comic-Con (including Jeffrey Tambor’s writer character, Adam Shadowchild) and just having a great time. The men are funny, the people they meet are funny, and their interactions are funny.
That, truly, is what one would expect from something by and starring Pegg and Frost. The men clearly have a huge depth and breadth of knowledge about all films and are able to both spoof and play into the tropes of various genres exceptionally well (see Shaun of the Dead). They prove again here that they know all about science fiction and sci-fi geeks (a term I use lovingly), and the jokes they make are not at the expense of those who enjoy their sci-fi. Instead, Pegg and Frost bring sci-fi lovers into the fold; perhaps they give them a slight ribbing, but it’s a good-natured one, it’s one that makes sci-fi lovers truly believe Pegg and Frost to be one of their own.
Once Willy and Gollings meet Paul, things don’t go so well for the movie. The guys are already off on a road trip to visit various alien landmarks around the southwest, which is fine and dandy, but when Paul jumps into the mix, there seem to be no other jokes to make and things stagnate.
The addition of Bateman and the two agents trying to help him, Haggard (Bill Hader) and O’Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio) don’t help. None of the three characters is fully three dimensional. They are written broadly and played solely for laughs, but really fail to ever do anything funny. Zoil’s boss, whom we mainly just hear via Zoil’s radio, begins as a potentially interesting shadowy figure, but never turns into anything worthwhile either.
There are a whole lot of ways that the film could have been interesting and funny, but it never progresses down any of the potential paths. It only ever offers up easy jokes like ones about female science fiction characters with three breasts.