PAUL: I’ve Been Waiting for This Since Mac and Me

Paul (2011) – Directed by Greg Mottola – Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen, Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Blythe Danner, Joe Lo Truglio, John Carroll Lynch, Jane Lynch, David Koechner, Jesse Plemons, Sigourney Weaver, Jeffrey Tambor, and Steven Spielberg.

Much like Super 8, PAUL is a love letter to Steven Spielberg, but unlike the J.J. Abrams film, PAUL isn’t a celebration of Spielberg’s films as much as it is a celebration of what the films meant to fans.

We see this in evidence right from the start as Greame (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) make their first pilgrimage to Sand Diego Comic-Con. These guys are fans and I appreciate how they’re fans without an over-fetishization of geek or nerd culture, which is a trend that has pretty much run its course. They are who they are, definitely fans but also definitely themselves, too. Clive is a writer and Graeme is an artist, and they’re not just visiting from England to experience SDCC, but to take a road trip through some alien hot spots in the American West.

We stay in San Diego just long enough to establish that these two guys love their sci-fi, and then they’re off in an RV. At a roadside diner where Jane Lynch works, Graeme laughs along with two redneck stereotypes (David Koechner and Jesse Plemons), who decide to interpret his joviality as hostile instead of friendly. When Clive comes out of the bathroom, the two rednecks make fun of Graeme and Clive for being gay.

Which they’re not, but which is also a recurring joke in the film.

Graeme and Clive hightail it out of there and accidentally put a dent in the rednecks’ truck on their way out of the parking lot. Later on that night, as they stop to take some pictures at another sight on their stop, they see some approaching headlights and wrongly assume its the rednecks. Fleeing the scene, they are quickly overcome by the headlights, and as the car whizzes past, the car wrecks and the boys stop to have a look.

The rednecks are the worst part of the film because they are never anything but their base stereotypes. Many of PAUL’s conflict are derived from pitting different social groups against each other: nerds, rednecks, the deeply religious, the bad ass Mr. FBI Man, but only the rednecks never reveal themselves to be something more. Luckily, despite their introduction as the film’s first antagonist, they are not major players in the movie.

At the scene of the accident, the two Brits meet Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), who solicits their help in him getting home. Grame proves himself the cooler customer, more willing to accept an actual alien in their presence, while Clive passes out and pees himself. From there on, we’ve got a combo buddy comedy/road trip with Paul the alien as the third wheel tag-along.

Paul is designed to be a mid-sized alien with very human tendencies: he likes to smoke and drink and swear, and there are times where this gets a bit much. There is some over-reliance on the comedy coming simply from Paul doing these things, as if an alien who swears is, in and of itself, inherently funny. Maybe if this film had come out in 1987, this would have worked, but now it already feels kinda stale – if Paul is intended to be funny, he needs to be funny irregardless of being a little grey alien with big blue eyes.

The most interesting aspect of this film is simply watching two different comedy camps come together. Up front is the Pegg and Frost duo as PAUL’s main stars and it’s co-writers, and in less-obvious roles are part of the Arrested Development family in the persons of director Greg Mottola, and actors Jason Bateman and Jeffrey Tambor. It’s a winning combo, with the deadpan-jerk humor of Bateman and Tambor blending nicely with the disbelieving-nice guys style of Pegg and Frost.

There is a third wheel here and that’s the inclusion of Seth Rogen as the voice of Paul. Mottola has a history with the Apatow/Rogen family, too, as he also directed Superbad and was a director on Undeclared, so Rogen isn’t completely alone here. Personally, I’ve had my fill of Rogen’s Big Loud Idiot type, and even though Paul doesn’t entirely fit that mold, Rogen’s voice keeps pushing the character in that direction. It’s hard to think of Paul as either intelligent or likable with that awful voice coming out of his mouth, but it’s certainly not enough to sink the character or the film.

Graeme, Clive, and Paul pull the RV into an RV park for the night, where they meet Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), a one-eyed, over-protected daughter of a religious zealot. PAUL takes all kinds of shots at God and religion and Paul becomes the (celebrated) serpent in the Garden. When Ruth starts espousing her faith (and it’s not like she says, “I like Jesus,” because she actually says, “The world is 4,000 years old and God created it in six days.”) Paul loses his marbles and starts debating her from inside the RV’s bathroom, even though he’s supposed to be hiding. Paul ends up getting Ruth to turn away from her faith, in part because he shows her his entire life story through a mind link and in part because he cures her dead eye.

I have some issues with this – not as a Christian, because even though I was raised Catholic I don’t consider myself aligned with any religion these days, but just as a matter of logic. Simply because the Bible does not take aliens into account does not mean that their existence disproves the concepts of God and Creationism. I suppose the point here is that because Ruth is such a strict Christian that Paul’s ability to show her that the world is more than 4,000 years old becomes the crack that breaks the dam. It’s simplistic, but it fits the film’s general theme, which is that the group dynamic is more important than an individual’s personal issues.

I really like how PAUL picks up people as the film moves along. First, the road trip is about Graeme and Clive’s adventure, then it’s folds in the plot in getting Paul home, and then when Ruth is added, it folds in a subplot of self-discovery. It’s a really good script that’s only sidelined (like most comedies) by a weak joke here and there. The nice thing, however, is that PAUL is every bit as interested in telling a story as it is in simply telling jokes.

There’s plenty of nods to Spielberg (and the director’s voice even makes an appearance), but the funniest reference is when Clive (who feels like he’s blown it by passing out and peeing himself when he first met Paul) is trying to explain his actions to Paul and he says, “I’ve been waiting for this since Mac and Me and I feel like I’ve blown it!”

Mac and Me.

It’s a great reference because Mac and Me is widely recognized as a cheap E.T. knock off, yet that doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who like the movie, which furthers strengthens the idea that Graeme and Clive are just regular fans.

It’s the combination of sci-fi love, camaraderie, and jokes that work better because they’re amusing rather than because they’re laugh out loud funny. I mean, how can you not like a movie that sees Clive referring to Paul as Short Round? PAUL hits all the right notes for a good time. It’s not hysterical (except for Jason Bateman, who’s very, very funny here), but it is constantly amusing.