Paul (2011)

Directed By: Greg Mottola
Written By: Simon Pegg
  Nick Frost
Starring: Simon Pegg
  Nick Frost
  Seth Rogen
  Jason Bateman

This review is difficult to write.

I am a life-long fan of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s collaborative work – from Spaced to Hot Fuzz – and had hoped that Paul could imbue the same sense of joy and hilarity that their previous projects did. Perhaps it’s a lack of Edgar Wright or the fact it’s Nick Frost’s first foray into film-writing, but whatever the reasons Paul is a very different beast to their previous canon of work.

I genuinely hate to bemoan the work of two people that I respect and adore, but Paul simply isn’t good enough. It is obvious, lazy, puerile and eye-rollingly stupid at times. I desperately wanted to love this movie but it failed to ingratiate itself to me. Paul is horribly disappointing.

The plot is startlingly simple; two long haired British geeks (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) with geek names (Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings) and geek t-shirts (The Empire Strikes Back and Flash Gordon) are travelling the geek route through America to see all the famous alien sites (from Area 51 to the Black Mailbox). Their wildest dreams come true, however, and they run into an actual real-life alien… who happens to be called Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen).

Paul is on the run, having escaped a government facility, and needs to travel to a “pick up site”. He accosts the two geeks in their massive RV and proceeds to travel across part of America to reach his final destination. Naturally there are many (clichéd) obstacles along the way – from a cunning Man in Black, two stupid Men in Black, some homophobic hicks and a heavily religious nutcase with a shotgun.

The film then consists of a chase where they accidentally kidnap one-eyed Christian girl Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), who Graeme instantly falls in love with. At one point the duo are asked if they “know Benny Hill”… which might be a sly reference to the latter half of the film, which feels like a slow motion Benny Hill chase sketch. Terrifyingly enough, Paul has more in common with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back than anything to do with blood and Cornettos…

Essentially the majority of people will be teleporting into cinemas to see Simon Pegg and Nick Frost reunited on the big screen for the first time since 2007’s Hot Fuzz. Those hoping for similar dynamics to their previous films (Pegg being the world weary smartish one and Frost being the loveable oaf) will be disappointed. Both Pegg and Frost are hard to sympathize with in Paul, but not because they’re unlikeable. Graeme and Clive are both amiable fellows but they lack any edge, have little charisma and seem to have absolutely no background. They appear to be cardboard caricatures simply used to emulate our surprise when Paul turns invisible or resurrects a bird.

Luckily, however, there’s Seth Rogen. Not a statement I’d often find myself saying (especially after The Green Hornet), but the titular character is simply superb throughout. He is the straight man to everyone else’s kooky weirdness, who combines the dry wit and sighing annoyance you’d normally expect from Simon Pegg. In fact, Paul is the best thing in it. The CGI is genuinely superb and you actually forget you’re watching an animation; Paul is such a well rounded character it makes the human actors seem like badly painted balsa…

Saying this, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio are genuinely fun, putting the “Special” into Special Agents and cameos from Jane Lynch and Jeffrey Tambor are always welcome. Oddly, the normally superb Jason Bateman floats through the movie looking irritated and bored; maybe it was a favour for ex-Arrested Development director Greg Mottola, but he seems uncomfortable throughout.

This review is difficult to write. I say this again because I KNOW some people will absolutely love Paul and want to boot me into a sarlacc pit for criticizing it. I do recognize that its creators were aiming at a much broader audience than the usual Frost / Pegg collaborations, but it’s simply too broad.

As well as everybody everywhere, Paul is surely aimed at massive sci-fi nerds, yet it gleefully insults their intelligence by depicting the geeks as total twits and whacking in gross-out gags that normally populate American teen comedies. Perhaps because of studio influence or maybe Nick Frost’s dirty sense of humour, Paul is filled with tick-boxy base jokes that reference drugs and pissy pants, contains running gags about “spaceman balls!” and an alien with “three tits = awesome” and chucks in bucketloads of childish swearing.

This style of comedy is helmed by expert gross-outer Greg Mottola, who brought us the surprisingly awesome Superbad (2007) and Adventureland (2009); these are sweary teen flicks with heart and soul. What Paul lacks is this kind of disciplined, tightly-written, memorable comedy (McLovin’!) and it seems too busy having a giant masturbatory handshake with Steven Spielberg instead, whose past canon of work isn’t just referenced to in Paul but openly homaged throughout. It riffs on Close Encounters and E.T. and in one shot we see a cinema is screening Duel (Spielberg’s first film). And then there’s 2011’s best cameo, in an Ark of Covenant style secret warehouse, which is funny and genuinely surprising.

Perhaps because of Spielberg’s clear endorsement of their loving tomfoolery, Paul feels awkwardly self-congratulatory at times – like Frost n’ Pegg were high-fiving each other off-camera every time a sci-fi reference was pointlessly shoehorned in – and the film’s finale feels especially smug. They’ve travelled a long way from the sly craftiness of Spaced’s subtle film references, but it’s a road that leads to the Hollywood School of Dumbing Down and it’s a rocky and awkward journey for everyone.

Paul is not great. It is obvious, childish, poorly scripted and occasionally very dumb. Seth Rogen is superb, there are moments of genius and it will appeal to a HUGE audience, so it’s not all boo-hiss news. More inside-a-pub than out-of-this-world, Paul is watchable, unchallenging silliness. Pegg and Frost could’ve – and should’ve – provided something so much better.

Dammit, this review was difficult to write.

Rating: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

9 Comments on “Paul”

  1. Pat Scullion says:

    Well, *that* looked like it was difficult to write. And sad to read, too.

    But not all that surprising. I’d heard Pegg and Frost talking to Kermode and Mayo about this, stating that due to the budget (~$50m) the studio had *quite* an influence in terms of making the film… uuurgh… “more accessible”.

    In other words: dumbed down and obvious. Sounds like that’s exactly the effect.

    On the plus side, this does leave hope that the last of the Blood and Ice Cream will be back to their former quality. We can but only hope.

  2. TheMilkman says:

    Yeah. This was a very average film. I think part of the problem was that the role of Paul is normally the character Nick Frost plays (i.e. the one who persuades Simon Pegg’s character to do things he knows he shouldn’t, but also know he wants to). This made Nick Frost almost entirely redundant throughout the film.

    I massively disagree with you about Bateman, though, I thought he put in one of the best performances. It wasn’t a very funny character, but he was well played and utterly believable (as opposed to ‘zany’ other two Agents, who were so duncey I was amazed they ever got near the Secret Service). He makes a very good straight man, and exuded a lot of authority – exactly what the role needed.

    One last point, when I spoke to a friend about this film I said “it’s like a less funny Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” – without having read your review! Great minds think alike…

    • The Scullion says:

      Good point about Frost’s character – he was particularly pointless.

      Regarding Bateman, perhaps it was because was SO straight-laced that he seemed out of place within the structure of the film. Thematically and stylistically, Paul is clearly not supposed to be remotely grounded in our reality and Bateman just seems so… normal… because of this.

      I love Bateman’s work normally, but I was aching for more of him in Paul. Much like Blythe Danner, John Carroll Lynch and the two hicks, he was a character who could’ve been cut or moulded into another character and the film would’ve been exactly the same.

      Then again, I know some people who LOVED Paul and wanted to see it again the instant they left the cinema… Gotta love how film divides people so vastly.

  3. TheMilkman says:

    Oh and by the way, I quite enjoyed ‘The Green Hornet’. Think of me what you will.

  4. Jess says:

    I wanted so much to like this film; Instead it just made me very angry.
    I am a die hard Frost/Pegg fan and was incredibly disappointed by this.
    They really suffered from the absence of Edgar Wright – here’s hoping the threeesome work together soon so we don’t have to endure anymore puerile, dumbed-down, fart joke of a movies

  5. annonymous says:

    you sir are an ignoramous this movie was awesome though i will agree that the green bonnet was crap , but paul was funny witty and yes sometimes stupid but pegg and frost always pull out the stupid humour i disagree with you entirely but everyone is enticed to their own opinion ad i hope i am not judged for mine.

  6. annonymous says:

    sorry bonnet is suppose to say hornet stupid auto correct

  7. annonymous says:

    and again amnesia auto correct plz ignore my typos

  8. Scullion says:

    Hi Annonymous,

    It is sad to hear someone say “everyone is enticed to their own opinion ad i hope i am not judged for mine” in the same sentence as stating “you sir are an ignoramous”.

    I felt my review was incredibly fair, especially considering how I clearly show my respect and love for Pegg and Frost past work in –

    Actually, sod it. Anyone who begins a post with “you sir are an ignoramous” is not going to listen to reasoned argument from me.

    As I said in the review “there are moments of genius and it will appeal to a HUGE audience” and “I KNOW some people will absolutely love Paul and want to boot me into a sarlacc pit for criticizing it” – I acknowledged you and other people would like it.

    Many people I know thoroughly enjoyed Paul, including my Dad and one of my best friends. Neither of them called me incredibly ignorant for disliking it! Maybe a little snobbish, perhaps, but not ignorant…!

    Whatever the case, I’m glad you thought it was awesome.

    TIP: For your future insulting, it is spelt “ignoramus”, not ignoramous.

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