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.
If the new Blu-ray release of Paul has anything going for it, it’s that it looks and sounds excellent. The level of detail, even in the numerous dark scenes, is fantastic, and the CGI Paul often really appears to be present. Particularly during the Comic-Con scene, the pro forma space ship scene at the (and one unnecessary and silly explosion), colors are vivid and pop off the screen. The film doesn’t have a comic book/cartoony look to it, most colors are more muted and realistic, but they come alive when they need to. The sound too is quite good. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 makes good use of the surrounds for the score and to help locate viewers within the action. During the couple of true action sequences, the surrounds really come into play, but like the visuals, they quiet down when they’re not needed.
Universal has opted to go with the smorgasbord style of extras here, throwing in a whole bunch of not terribly well considered bonus features, some of which work and some of which don’t. Lovers of the film will be excited that the disc comes with both the theatrical version and an unrated cut which is extended by six minutes, and which doesn’t really add much. There is a commentary track for the theatrical version (Pegg, Frost, Hader, Mottola, and a producer appear on it), bloopers, a two-part making of featurette, behind the scenes featurettes, a look at the creation of the CGI Paul, Simon Pegg making funny faces, clips/discussion of Adam Shadowchild, and galleries. The making-of piece is fairly interesting and proves again that Pegg and Frost know what they’re doing in general, even if it doesn’t come off terribly well in the film itself. The rest of the behind the scenes featurettes tend to be more relaxed moments, but probably not quite as relaxed as the compilation of Simon Pegg’s funny faces which, you know, are funny faces. The release also comes with a DVD and digital copy.
There are jokes to be had in Paul, and here Pegg and Frost prove once again that they know a whole lot about movies. It just never ends up feeling as funny as you will want it to, and as funny as it probably should have been. There are definite moments of brilliance, but they’re all too few, too far between, and too lost amongst a movie which doesn’t work all that well despite the potential of the premise.