There is a maxim about comic book story writing that states that if you could replace the central superhero with a different superhero without it affecting the plot, then the story is not about that specific superhero and it won’t work to the strengths of the character. This came to mind after I watched Paul: there is no specific reason for Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to be British in this film, and the film could easily work without them or their unique on-screen chemistry. Fortunately, the central character of the CGI alien voiced by Seth Rogen is such an enjoyable creation that it carries the film and you don’t really mind.
Pegg and Frost are Graeme and Clive, two British geeks in the USA for San Diego Comic-Con, who then go on a road trip in a rented RV around the famous UFO hotspots along the Extraterrestrial Highway. On the way, they pick up Paul and agree to help him get back home. All the while, they are being chased by various men in black, mainly in the form of Jason Bateman, who are eager to get him back.
The character of Paul is a riot – he enjoys strong weed, relaxing, swearing and popular culture – and the CGI is great, creating a tangible presence on screen that can channel the exuberance of Rogen while overcoming his occasional annoyance factor. His vitality is needed because Graeme and Clive are fairly bland – they are amiable blokes but with no real personality, as if the story is sufficient to overcome this shortfall. Pegg and Frost co-wrote the script, so it’s a strange choice; they also feel slightly too old for the type of characters they are playing (not helped by Pegg’s rather silly hair), adding to the discrepancy.
One possible reason why the central characters are lacking in spark is that the film is aimed squarely at the mainstream, despite all the swearing: the film is packed with known comedy faces (Kristen Wiig as the love interest for Graeme, plus smaller roles for Jane Lynch, David Koechner, Bill Hader and Jeffrey Tambor, as well as a big name cameo that works really well); the direction from Greg Mottola is characterless compared with the sharpness of Edgar Wright; and the fact that the film is a geek wish fulfilment version of E.T. with a side helping of love letter to Steven Spielberg (the opening scene and the finale in particular are tributes to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and there is a lovely voice cameo in the middle). The film lacks the edge of Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, which can be seen from the rather flat scenes at Comic-Con and some flimsy ‘we’re not gay’ jokes. There is also the soft attitude to the most interesting human character – Wiig plays a Christian whose worldview is overturned by the evidence of an extraterrestrial, which is a fantastic concept to play with, but it’s mostly ignored for humorous novelty swearing as she uses all the words she’s denied herself.
On the other hand, the film can be funny in its use of movie in-jokes, as would be expected from Pegg and Frost (I liked the Star Wars jokes, such as the country and western band in a bar playing a version of the cantina song, and the post-credit gag that uses some dialogue from Return of the Jedi), although the name of Bateman’s character, Agent Zoil, provides the cheapest and most cringe-worthy film-related gag in the entire film. The knowingness provides a relaxed humour, with occasional flashes of the Pegg/Frost interaction, meaning that the film is enjoyable and will reward future viewings. It’s just that it’s not as good as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, which is admittedly a high standard to maintain, but means that anything less is noticeable.