Friday, March 18, 2011

Paul (2011)

What, exactly, is Paul? This is the question posited on all of Paul's promotional material. The answer of what is Paul, the character, is much easier to answer than what is Paul, the movie.

The film tells the story of two British sci-fi nerds (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who also wrote the script) who come to San Diego to attend Comic-Con. After the main event, they decide to go on a road trip across the American West to visit all of the "UFO hotspots,"  hoping for a good time and hopefully catching a glimpse at a UFO themselves. Instead, they come across Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an alien on the run from the government that's kept him captive since he landed here in the 1940s. Its up to these two to help Paul get to his ultimate destination, but not without being chased by government agents and kidnapping a Christian fundamentalist (more on that later).

So what is Paul? He's probably the most well-defined character in the film, a creation that's both visually impressive and layered enough to not be a shallow caricature. Rogen, who is not known for his multi-dimensional characters, surprisingly inflects a sense of world-weariness into his stoner-alien's voice, making him sound like an old mystic with a puckish side, like The Lion King's Rafiki voiced by Tommy Chong. Unfortunately, he's the only interesting character in this whole film: Pegg and Frost play broad, Jason Bateman, as a government agent, gets little to do, and Blythe Danner and Sigourney Weaver are largely wasted in their precious-little screen time. Then there's Kristen Wiig, the aforementioned fundamentalist who's biggest joke is that she now swears.

The plot is weak in execution, but one thing that does help salvage the film is its heavy nerd-humor. A nod to Aliens here, some Predator there, and a clever musical cue to Star Wars goes a long way, and I enjoyed the various in-jokes about Comic-Con as well (the rest of the audience at my advanced screening, however, were unmoved by this, laughing at the broader jokes instead, if at all). In the end, though, the film isn't entirely sure of what it is. It tries hard to be both an buddy comedy and a stoner flick, but it never really coalesces as either. And for some reason, Pegg and Frost felt it was necessary to shoe-horn a pro-evolution, anti-religion message that doesn't fit in the film at all. Its an odd note that prevents the film from being a decent attempt at a sci-fi comedy for everyone, instead ensuring the film is a non-congealed mess.

Paul has its laughs, but it ultimately falls short of being great. There's a lot of very good parts here, but they never add up to a whole.

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