Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) are Brits abroad in this latest comedy written by Pegg and Frost and directed by Greg Mottola (of Superbad/Adventureland fame). Beginning their journey at San Diego Comic-Con they then travel across America intending to visit alledged UFO/alien landmarks of interest but along the way they encounter a bona fide alien named Paul (Seth Rogen). With Paul on board the pair find themselves pursued by government agents and the disgruntled bible-bashing father of Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a one eyed evolution hater that Graeme and Clive ‘kidnap’ after she discovers their alien stowaway.
So much of the success of the film’s comedic and dramatic beats is dependant on the dynamic between the main characters, most notably between Graeme and Clive but also between the pair and Paul. The pairing of Pegg and Frost is one that is probably familiar to most from their work with Edgar Wright in Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and not much has changed in this latest effort. If it ain’t broke etc. If you like the way the actors play off each other then you’ll find it easy to warm to their characters here. One aspect of the double act that does begin to grate though as the film progresses is the incessant need to reference the fact that they are not gay, resulting in few laughs and a childishness that becomes a little tiresome. For the most part though this doesn’t feel too forced and the constant need to comment on it is a plausible part of the relationship between the two.
Unlike the well worn relationship between Pegg and Frost, the interaction between them and Paul is a new and tricky prospect but one that all involved have pulled off incredibly well. The CGI creation of Paul is well realised and comes across like a real physical presence in most, although not all, scenes. Perhaps most surprising is how well Rogen’s performance ensures Paul is a convincing character in the film. Rogen’s solid voice work and the dialogue that Pegg and Frost have written for Paul ensure that the character feels natural and one of the group rather than a CGI creation standing out like a sore thumb.
Added to this male trio is a delightful performance from Kristen Wiig who is given perhaps the strongest, albeit still very simplistic, character arc as a devout religious girl whose eyes are opened by what she sees (this will probably, unintentionally, read like a pun if you’ve seen the film). Wiig is excellent and entirely convincing as Ruth, despite her character still being a little underwritten, and her new found love of swearing provides an enjoyable running gag throughout the film. The sub plot involving her anti-religious awakening and the unwavering faith of her father will undoubtedly result in some misguided controversy but despite this critical undercurrent the handling of the religious themes never comes across as mean spirited. The inclusion of this in the script also seems like an obvious choice considering the religious fervour that has risen in popular American culture recently and it feels like a natural part of the ‘Brits in America’ side to the film. The pair also touch on another aspect of the US as seen from a foreign perspective with references to US gun control but like the religious themes this really is mostly surface level and it never ventures into serious satire.
Paul is at heart a geek-referencing comedy and its greatest strength is that it fulfils this remit satisfyingly enough. The jokes generally land well and even gags that rely on an understanding of the reference point in question still often work as self contained comedic moments. Even though the referencing is deeply embedded in the film, and a reason why it works so well in places, it is most likely still easy to enjoy even without the wider knowledge of everything it is referring to. The cultural reference points are also varied enough that even if the Eightball or Queen Sonja nods fly past a general audience they will probably still enjoy the references to the relatively more mainstream fare such as Star Wars, Easy Rider or Battlestar Galactica.
Whilst the comedy generally succeeds in all the right places the propulsion needed to keep the plot engaging is lacking and Mottola also shows something of weakness for directing what could have made for much more thrilling action sequences. There are scenes, for instance, that on paper look like car chases but really just consist of little more than aerial shots of people driving. The film surrounds a pursuit across America to reach a location for an important event but this doesn’t feel like an exciting chase with high stakes and as a result a lot of energy and urgency in the plot is lost because of this. The film is a bit too laid back at times and as with some of the humour, even the good stuff, too much of it relies on going for the easy win rather than pushing for something really great.
Despite following through on the promise of being an enjoyable light comedy Paul never really stretches for too much more and ends up being a satisfactory film that is easy to recommend but not one that I found myself falling in love with.