Actors, writers and former flatmates Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have been finely honing their geeky comedy double act for close to 15 years. This summer the pair appeared in The World’s End, the third and final film in the ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ of knowing genre-aping comedies directed by Edgar Wright (its predecessors being Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz), but in between the second and third movies they wrote and starred in Paul, a road trip comedy directed by Greg Mottola.
Pegg and Frost play Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings, two English sci-fi fanboys who are travelling across the USA in a campervan (or, for the Marlboro’-chugging, bison-wrestling American readers, an RV, which I fully admit is a much more muscular-sounding word than our effete Limey one). After visiting comic-con in San Diego the pair head off on a pilgrimage to various ET-related sights, and on one long stretch of highway they meet and befriend the Paul of the title: a sweary, pot-smoking alien, voiced by Seth Rogen.
Paul crashlanded on our planet in the 1950s, but has escaped from captivity in Area 51, and is a fugitive on the run from the secret service agents “Big Guy” (Sigourney Weaver) and Lorenzo Zoil (Jason Bateman – arf). He enlists the help of the holidaying pair so that he can meet up with a rescue party and get back safely to his home planet. The trio, who pick up an RV park owner and Christian fundamentalist called Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiiiiiiig) along the way, are also pursued by Ruth’s father, two disappointingly stereotypical rednecks and two inept rookie agents.
Pegg and Frost are a likeable duo, and here their easy comedy again relies heavily on bromantic banter and plenty of tongue-in-cheek references to classic science fiction films. (Particularly Star Wars here, but not exclusively. There’s a nice scene where the characters enter a country and western bar and the house band is playing the same song as the band in the Mos Eisley Cantina.) Pegg’s character is very similar to the one he played in the fantastic British TV series, Spaced: an animator sci-fi geek that is refusing to grow up, and it’s slightly disappointing to see him cover this familiar ground again. Rogen joins in, gamely swearing away, but the alien Paul – like the jaded bear in Seth McFarlane’s Ted – is an extremely predictable creation. The world-weary animated / computer-generated character that acts like an adult and employs all those hilarious adult traits like cynicism, smoking while being cynical and drinking while being cynical is fast becoming one of the more tiresome cliches of modern comedies and animated films.
It’s more of the same stoner schtick from Rogen, too, though it would be unfair to accuse the comedian of overexposure, as in the past couple of years he has reduced his output considerably. The problem is, while there are some witty moments, there just aren’t enough laughs in Paul, and before long Rogen and Wiiiiiiig are reduced to trading jovial insults to pass the time. Both have been far better … when they have worked with better scripts.
Another man covering similar ground is Greg Mottola, whose debut feature back in the mid-1990s was the smart indie road trip comedy The Daytrippers, which he also wrote. Since then he has only directed three more films – and while Superbad and Paul were box office successes (the former massively so), neither are a patch on Mottola’s vastly underrated bittersweet coming-of-age 80s-set comedy Adventureland. Which he also wrote.
It’s for reasons like this that I sometimes feel like bashing my head against the wall when considering mainstream film audiences. Present the world with a sharply written comedy that mixes subtle humour with indie quirk and the world will shrug its shoulders. Present the world with an alien or a teddy bear that says “fuck” a lot and they’ll be queuing round the block.
It’s a shame to be disappointed by this film: despite its clear self-indulgence it is actually quite funny in places; I like Pegg and Frost and I kind of like Wiiiiiig and Rogen too, even if I find that smug groups like the frat pack quickly begin to grate and irritate. Bateman and Weaver are also good fun when they are on screen, both playing it ultra-straight for a few laughs. No-one involved seems to take themselves particularly seriously, by the looks of things, and there’s an enjoyable lightness about the film. It looks like a happy set was enjoyed by all.
Overall, though, there aren’t enough laughs for it to be considered a real comedy classic. It has its moments, but Pegg and Frost have written better scripts, and Mottola’s short back catalogue includes three better comedies. He directs straightforwardly, and you can’t help but feel that the film would have benefitted from a little more of Edgar Wright’s usual visual flair to paper over the cracks. Just about worth seeing for the knowing sci-fi jokes that generally hit the mark (Spielberg has an excellent cameo in one scene), but ultimately the sad truth is that no-one will be referencing Paul in sci fi films or comedies of the future.
Directed by: Greg Mottola
Written by: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen, Kirsten Wiig
Running Time: 104 Minutes