Friday, March 18, 2011

'Paul,' the alien you can get high with

Simon Pegg and Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) on a bad trip.

There’s a constant danger that a film like Paul could end up one long inside joke, filled with obscure sci-fi references and nerd shout-outs with no real connection to anyone who isn’t a massive geek. It goes without saying that Paul is a flick by geeks, for geeks, but it also packs enough heart and energy to win over anyone with a taste for the odd, or even just a dirty sense of humor.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (the team that brought you Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) star as Graeme and Clive, a pair of English nerds who flew into America for the annual San Diego ComicCon and then opted for an RV tour of America’s most noteworthy UFO-related sites. After a pit-stop at the Little A’Le’Inn (a real place) in Nevada, the pair encounters a car crash on a lonely road. It’s there that they meet Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), a little grey alien on the run from a government facility.

After the initial shock of finally meeting an actual alien after years of nerdy speculation, Graeme and Clive chat with Paul, who reveals that his spaceship crashed in Wyoming in the 1940s and he’s been hanging around ever since, informing the government on alien life and even influencing more than a few aspects of American culture (Agent Mulder was his idea). But now he’s used up his intellectual and scientific currency, and the Powers That Be want to keep him quiet. So, with a cold Man in Black (Jason Bateman) and his two hapless subordinates (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) hot on their trail, the threesome set off on a cross-country adventure to get Paul back to his home in the sky. Along the way, they meet a Bible-thumping RV park manager (Kristen Wiig), her crazy father (John Carroll Lynch) and a host of other helpers and obstacles as an adventure full of cursing, car chases and cosmic fates unfolds.

It’s easy to dismiss what’s going on here as a foul-mouthed, grown up version of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. If you said that’s what Paul is, you wouldn’t be wrong, but you would be wrong to dismiss the film because of what it owes to classic alien visitor films. Wrapped up in “Paul” are E.T.Close Encounters of the Third KindAliensThe X-Files and all those fun old flying saucer cheeseball flicks from the 50s. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Pegg and Frost, celebrated nerds in their own right, celebrate even the most clichéd parts of the characters and story they’ve created, because after all, Paul is a love letter to all the “visitors from beyond” flicks of yore, and in that respect it works marvelously.

It also becomes very hard to fault Pegg and Frost for making a film based almost entirely on other films when you take into account how funny Paul is. The pair made their names as in over their heads zombie battlers in Shaun of the Dead, and they do just as well as in over their heads alien companions. It might be a formula, but it’s not worn out yet.

Pegg and Frost know how to do what they do better than anyone, but Paul is their first truly Americanized film, and it's set apart by a bevy of American comic actors joining the act. Bateman, one of the great straight men of modern comedy, delights in the villainy of his character. Hader and Truglio are brilliantly bumbling, and Wiig is her typically effortless self.

What it all comes down to is that there’s nothing to complain about here. Mixed reviews for this film are mystifying. There’s no doubt that a good portion of what’s in Paul is derivative, but it’s also well done, reverent and a flat-out blast to watch.

Matt’s Call: If you’re a sci-fi geek, you’ll love it. But even if you’re not, there’s plenty to enjoy here.

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