One of the things I love about the film industry is discovering an actor, director or creative team who consistently deliver quality. Nick Frost and Simon Pegg are such a team. In addition to their individually flourishing careers they seem to be quite successfully working their way through their favourite genres, adding their own unique, British spin as they go.
Their comical send-up of the zombie / horror genre Shaun of the Dead was the utterly hilarious breakout hit that brought them to the attention of the cinema going public. Next they lampooned buddy-cop films in Hot Fuzz and have now turned their attention to alien movies with their latest Paul.
Admittedly, plot-wise Paul isn’t much more than your average road-trip comedy, except that one of the characters happens to be from another planet. However, where the plot is thin the difference is more than made up for by the solid cast, the quality of the gags and the myriad nods to the long history of alien movies that have gone before.
The entire cast are fantastic; Frost and Pegg are both believable and lovable as out-of-their-depth nerds and it’s fantastic to see Jason Bateman getting some more mainstream work (although I doubt I’ll ever be able to look at him without seeing Michael Bluth). The supporting characters are faces you will recognize from long, fruitful careers: Jeffrey Tambor, Jane Lynch, John Carroll Lynch, David Koechner, etc.
Even Seth Rogen is decent here. I must declare I am not a fan of Rogen; he has always struck me as belonging to that predictably unimaginative and crass streak of comedy reminiscent of a 6th grader who has discovered the notoriety associated with being the class clown, but has not yet realized that his classmates are laughing at him, not with him. He’s just not very impressive when left to his own devices. Take The Green Hornet & Pineapple Express as examples; both films are written by Rogen, star Rogen, and were largely panned by critics.
However, in the same way that a class clown can be reformed by a good teacher who is able to make a subject interesting to their students, there is a clear precedent that a good idea scripted well coupled with a strong director with a clear vision can lift an actor well above what you’d usually expect; for example Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction. Rogen is spoiled for help with Paul. Not only does he have a Frost/Pegg penned script to work from, the film was directed by Greg Mottola, who had already handled Rogen when directing Superbad. He even had advice on how best to handle his motion capture suit from veteran Andy Serkis (aka Gollum).
And while it’s difficult to get too far below the surface of a buddy / roadtrip movie when the titular character is as as Paul is, Frost & Pegg have written him to be quite a balanced character; he’s believable as he moves back and forth between a fun-loving (if crass) party-animal and genuinely connecting with his friends. For that matter, Paul is Rogen; both amusing if immature, asinine at times, but far from harmful and genuinely likable. Although I have to say it’s the animators who have really done the most for the little alien. They’ve imbued Paul’s face with a presence and depth of emotion that I doubt Seth Rogen would have been able to deliver.
Also I have do have to wonder why it was necessary for the love interest to be such a unrealistic hyperbolic red-neck Christian stereotype. You wouldn’t cast a man with an actual towel on his head and a dynamite stuffed vest as a Muslim these days and that stereotype bears about as much resemblance to a real Muslim as Kristen Wiig‘s character does to any real Christian.
The laughs come thick and fast and for those paying attention, the nods to the major alien pictures that have gone before are equally plentiful; you’ll certainly get more out of the movie if you’re a sci-fi buff than if you’re not. However, as with all well crafted movies, you won’t miss out if you don’t have that knowledge. Occasionally a gag doesn’t quite work but the occasion is rare (with the exception of the “I’ve got no practice with cursing” bit which gets flogged like a dead horse).
So the various pieces that make up Paul don’t add up to more than the sum of it’s parts, and not quite the same sum as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, they do certainly make for a worthwhile trip to the cinema.