Starring Mia Stallard, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
It’s an interesting time to be a geek. As a card-carrying member of the geek nation, I find myself at the dawn of a Golden Age—where San Diego Comic Con has transformed into a pop culture phenomenon, where comic-book characters are being transformed into major motion pictures at record pace. Today, books, comics, television shows, and stories of my nerd youth are being strip-mined by Hollywood.
“Paul” is the product of this current era of geek culture. The premise itself is derived from the science-fiction cinema of the 1970s and ‘80s. A friendly alien arrives on Earth, is captured by the government and tries to escape. On his journey he meets some friendly travelers who try and help him find his way home—shades of “Escape to Witch Mountain” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” That basic structure is stuffed with a handful of jokes, and a heaping helping of film and television references from every science-fiction property of the last 30 years.
Some of the jokes are obvious. When Blythe Danner punches Sigourney Weaver in the face and exclaims, “Get away from her, you bitch!” most people will get the “Alien” reference. When the guys go into a bar, and the band is playing the “Cantina Song,” most people will get the “Star Wars” reference. Even as a geek, I find myself growing weary of references. I understand the impact of “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” and “E.T.,” but I’ll be damned if I don’t get tired hearing about them on screen constantly.
“Star Wars” in particular has really turned into a sticking point for me. Sure, the movies were great when I was a kid, i.e. back when I judged a movie based on laser swords and dogfights in space. In hindsight, the “Star Wars” films are pretty damn boring. No one can argue the cultural significance of “a galaxy far far away.” But we can argue that science fiction and popular culture have become enslaved by the pointless devotion to some really mediocre films.
Modern filmmakers are so mired in reference and homage that they almost drown. I love Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the British pair that has given us such cult classics as “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” But we could make a strong argument that the films they write and star in are the products of a creative culture that can only define itself with pop culture references. Fortunately, Pegg and Frost are the best at what they do and, therefore, manage to transcend the trend. However, I’m starting to wonder if there’s more to my generation of creative types than regurgitating their childhood with pasteurized and processed innuendos.
In this go-round, Pegg and Frost play a pair of British science-fiction nerds who have made the pilgrimage to San Diego for Comic Con. Then, they hit the road to visit Area 51, the secret military base where many believe aliens are housed. They get more than they bargain for when they run into Paul (Seth Rogen). Paul is an outspoken and well-educated little troublemaker.
Paul is on the run from Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman), and a couple of bumbling junior agents played by the great Bill Hader (“Saturday Night Live”) and Joe Lo Truglio (“The State”). The government wants Paul for the kind of twisted experiments only faceless government agencies seem interested in and to learn the secrets of his powers. This is, of course, in direct opposition with Paul’s plans of living a long life.
What saves “Paul” is the cast. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are always entertaining and likable. Kristen Wiig (“Saturday Night Live”) does a great job in what could have been an utterly forgettable role. While the plot is recycled and the implications are stale, the cast does such a bang-up job of committing to the material that I ended up not really caring about its shortcomings. There aren’t a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, but I smiled a lot.
For some reason I enjoy Seth Rogen as a voice actor more than an onscreen presence. It’s odd when an actor is less likable with a visual component. Director Greg Mottola (“Superbad”) does an admirable job of making “Paul” a likable movie and character.
There’s a few inspired moments in the movie. It’s funny and somewhat fascinating to hear an alien and a devout Christian discuss the existence of a higher power. There are fleeting moments like this throughout the film. But for the most part, “Paul” is a by-the-numbers comedy that is saved by a strong comedic cast.