Andy Bockelman: ‘Paul’: Calling all space cases
March 28, 2011
3 out of 4 stars
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kristen Wiig and the voice of Seth Rogen.
When you think of life forms from other planets, you'd think they'd have names like Spleevax, Krrrr or Zornag, with amazing abilities to match their unusual monikers.
While the titular alien of "Paul" has a pretty humdrum handle, he certainly doesn't lack any special powers, chiefly the talent for making an audience burst with laughter.
English graphic novelists Graeme and Clive (Simon Pegg, Nick Frost) have found their Mecca: the annual San Diego Comic-Con, where pop culture geeks from around the world can share their love for all things science fiction, fantasy, etc.
However, the convention is only part of the duo's plans, as they rent an RV and drive across the American Southwest, taking in the sights of the country's most famed alien-related tourist traps.
But, their road trip takes an unexpected turn when they pick up a hitchhiker of the little green man variety named Paul (voice of Seth Rogen).
The snarky, chain-smoking extraterrestrial has been Earthbound for decades, held captive at Area 51, and is finally making a break for freedom, a dangerous gambit that can only come to completion if Graeme and Clive give him a lift to the rendezvous point.
While Graeme is overjoyed to make contact with a being right out of his favorite movies, books and TV shows, Clive is petrified that their new friend will be nothing but trouble. His anxiety gets no better as the three of them run afoul of a pair of rednecks (David Koechner, Jesse Plemons), accidentally take a woman (Kristen Wiig) hostage and draw the attention of a government agent (Jason Bateman) who's been pursuing Paul since his escape.
As the Laurel and Hardy of the new millennium, Pegg and Frost, who also penned the screenplay together, add another fine matchup to their list of buddy features, with Graeme and Clive just as enjoyable as the twosome's bits in "Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz" and the BBC series "Spaced."
Their latest characters barely require any acting, with Frost as a comic book writer who has a tendency to lapse into the Klingon language and pee his pants under duress, while Pegg is his more adventuresome illustrator.
And no, despite many characters' accusations, the two of them are not gay.
Although he's nowhere to be seen, Rogen is exactly what Paul would like if he were human, with the skinny, globe-headed, CGI otherworlder reminding us of his voice actor's personality in his every gulp of air in — with plentiful tokes of government weed — and out — his constant sarcasm — in between displays of powers like going invisible when he holds his breath and bringing a dead bird back to life only to swallow it whole.
Such acts don't sit too well with the trio's captive turned friend Ruth, wonderfully played by Wiig wearing glasses with a prescription the likes of which we haven't seen since "Airwolf." As a hard-core Christian who sports a T-shirt that reads "Evolve This!" and depicts Jesus blowing Charles Darwin's brains out with a handgun, Ruth's initial refusal to accept Paul's existence soon becomes a desire to go wild for the first time in her life after living with a Bible-thumping father (John Carroll Lynch).
All too willing to believe Paul is what he says is Bateman as no-nonsense Agent Zoil, whose tracking would be much easier without the bumbling of his rookie associates (Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio).
Besides Paul's knack for resurrection, his love for Reese's Pieces and the feds gunning for him, the comparisons to E.T. are many, although that's no accident as Paul would tell you, having consulted with Steven Spielberg on the creation of his most beloved movie. Apparently, we also have him to thank for "The X-Files" and lending his likeness to the classic space invader look, even if most renderings don't include his cargo shorts and thong sandals.
The movie borrows one-liners and characters from the best of the Spielbergian and Lucasian libraries, with references to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and both the "Wars" and "Trek" "Star" franchises, as well as the "Alien" and "Predator" series thrown in for good measure.
But, it's more than just a send-up of the greats of the last 50 years of alien culture.
"Superbad" director Greg Mottola disburses the sci-fi allusions at a steady rate, making a film that's both a smart spoof and a hilarious stoner comedy, a mix attempted in 2009's "Fanboys" that just didn't fly, even with Rogen playing multiple roles.
The balance between the two subgenres is much more effective in Paul's tale, best summed up by the cover of Graeme and Clive's novel, a portrait of a green-skinned Amazon with three breasts.
The best thing about the alien lead of "Paul" is that regardless of a sense of humor involving too many anal probe jokes, the little bugger has a big heart to match his edginess.
If the "E.T." rip-off "Mac and Me" — inexplicably one of Clive's favorite films — had featured an intergalactic visitor who spends 60 years waiting to bring a teddy bear back to its owner, maybe it wouldn't be considered one of the worst movies ever made.
But, Paul's impression of Kate Winslet in "Titanic" would still put him light years ahead.
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