Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the cheeky Brits who brought us “Hot Fuzz” and “Shaun of the Dead,” put their heads together once again to give us their signature fanboy take on the alien encounter movie. “Paul” has enough “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” references to delight the geekiest of geeks, and more four-letter punchlines and stoner gags than half-baked viewers will be able to understand. And most of it doesn’t quite work.
Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are longtime friends fulfilling their shared dream of going to San Diego’s Comic Con, and then touring, via RV, every major UFO-related site in the western United States. On the highway just outside infamous Area 51 they encounter Paul, a real alien who has escaped the secretive military base looking to phone home and get off the planet. After various demonstrations of movie surprise (wetting themselves, fainting, etc.) they agree to drive him to his contact point and hide him from the authorities.
The bulk of the film sees Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) behaving like a human. That’s the whole joke. In fact, virtually every joke in the movie is an addendum in some way to that central gag. Paul wears flip-flops and low-slung cargo shorts, and he smokes whatever he can find. He’s also lazy, foul-mouthed and kind of an asshole. In other words, he acts pretty much how Seth Rogen does in every Seth Rogen movie. So why not just cast Seth Rogen in a live-action role? Beats me. It would have made a lot more sense.
“Paul” is basically “E.T.” but without the charm, childlike wonder, internal consistency and fictional plausibility. But the most striking contrast to be drawn from this analogy is in the way both films handle the concept of an alien life form interacting with humans. The reason “E.T.” is so effective is because it explores the differences, big and small, between two intelligent species, and in so doing, amplifies the significance of their similarities. “Paul” is oblivious to this and neutralizes the only point of interest inherent in a film about an alien encounter.
The movie occasionally strays off the beaten, banal path, however, and makes things interesting with a bit of polarizing satire. In one of the film’s funnier sequences, the trio runs into a Bible-thumping, shotgun-toting redneck (John Carroll Lynch) and his one-eyed, Jesus-freak daughter, Ruth (Kristen Wiig). Religion is skewered mercilessly as Ruth tries to defend her irrational, Bronze Age beliefs in the face of Paul’s highly advanced, intergalactic intellect. It’s the type of daring stance that most films are afraid to take for fear of diminished box office receipts. But director Greg Mottola (“Superbad,” “Adventureland”) approaches it with disarming humor, allowing it to slide into the flow of the film without drawing undue attention to that part of the film.
Still, there are more misses than hits, making “Paul” an uncharacteristic misstep for a duo that seemed incapable of anything but hits.