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Paul (2011,USA)

10/07/2011

Director: Greg Mottola     Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig

Whenever you clap eyes on a Pegg/Frost film you know to expect certain things. An inevitable bromance central relationship, weighted in favour of Pegg as the “grown up” versus Frost’s childlike naif. An outlandish and slightly silly plot premise. Most inevitable of all is the barrage of references to established favourites from pop culture. It’s a formula that brought the duo success in Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz (not to mention their earlier adventures in cult TV show Spaced) but the question is, can this recipe hold up to an outing across the pond and out of the hands of their previous collaborator, Edgar Wright?

At first glance all the signs are there that everything is going to plan. Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are a couple of geeks on holiday in the States to visit ComiCon and take a whistlestop tour of various geek hotspots (largely UFO related sites like Area 51) only to stumble upon Paul (Rogen), an extra terrestrial escapee from a shadowy government organisation who takes the duo on a road trip to rendezvous with his fellow space beings so that he may, in the words of a slightly better known alien, go home. Unfortunately, despite appearances, there is something missing from Paul that leaves it falling a little short of the mark.

Perhaps the shortfall in quality here is a direct result of the writing. Hot Fuzz and Shaun Of The Dead were the brainchildren of Pegg and Wright rather than Pegg and Frost. Perhaps there is a need for a stern third hand to guide the work beyond the confines of the Pegg/Frost dynamic that was missing here. Maybe the fault lies at the feet of Mottola, unaccustomed to the distinctly British humour that made Fuzz, Shaun and Spaced so successful and equally unused to the relationship of his two leads. I suspect it may be down to a little of both. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that unlike those other films which took genre staples and injected new life into them by cross-breeding them with other elements, Paul is a straightforward sci-fi comedy that stretches fish out of water stereotypes and gay jokes past the point of no return.

The overall feel is that instead of slipping clever film references into the story, the story has been formed around the references some of which are more effective than others. What is clearly a loving tribute to the Star Wars cantina scene, for example, is actually quite amusing if a little bit obvious and more importantly well travelled elsewhere (see also Team America), a fact that prevents it rising above amusing to truly funny. I can’t decide if I have grown beyond this kind of referential, quote based humour or if this is just a sub-standard example of it but it just doesn’t seem enough here to carry the film.

Despite all this I can’t bring myself to be too disparaging about a film that has so much heart and is so well intentioned. Seth Rogen is something of a revelation as Paul although it probably works to his advantage that he gets most of the best lines. There is something quite heartwarming about his slightly condescending affection for humans, especially his new found chums, a sort of self assured confidence that only comes with a higher state of evolution and an infinite knowledge of the universe and its workings. At the same time, he knows how to pull off juvenile gags and that comedy staple, amusing swearing without it feeling forced or self conscious.

The men in black style agents that pursue the trio across America also provide some funny moments (as well as possibly the most ill judged and slightly disturbing end-credits joke I’ve ever seen) as they bumble around in a vain effort to bring them all to heel but again sometimes the jokes fall a bit flat (the “spaceman balls” gag is a case in point, you’ll see) being little more than cheap knob gags.

Even with all its flaws, it feels cruel to condemn Paul too harshly, largely because it makes up for its comedy shortcomings with a lot of heart and a clear affection for the genre it lampoons but there is no escaping the fact that this is far, far away (see what I did there?) from Pegg’s best work. If you are a fan of his repertoire it’s definitely worth a look and if you are looking for a lightweight comedy that requires no real commitment to enjoy then it probably fits the bill, just don’t expect too much from it as you may find yourself rather disappointed.

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