Disclaimer: I briefly appear in Paul as an extra.
Astaire and Rogers. Martin and Lewis. Arm and Hammer. Pegg and Frost.
Like all the best duos, there’s something nice about watching Simon Pegg and Nick Frost working together. I think that accounts for a large amount of what makes Paul work. The stoner/alien/road comedy has a shambolic amiability, most of it derived from the way these guys interact.
The premise is simple: two English nerds and soulmates come to the US to attend Comic Con. Afterwards they rent an RV and hit the highways of the West Coast to see iconic UFO sights. But when they get to Area 51 in the Nevada desert they come much closer to UFOs than they could have ever imagined - an ET named Paul has escaped from the facility and needs their help to rendezvous with his planetmates. They take off with a trio of FBI agents, played by Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Joe LoTruglio, in hot pursuit. Along the way they pick up a one-eyed Jesus freak whose entire outlook on the universe is shattered by the existence of Paul. Laughs ensue.
I’ll be honest - they aren’t always belly laughs. There are some really great jokes in the film, but most of the movie’s good bits are loud chuckles or big grins. That’s not a criticism; there’s an easygoing joviality to the proceedings that works better than a thousand thunderous laughs. There’s a real warmth to Paul, not only towards the geek culture it is playfully tweaking but also towards its characters in general and humanity in total. There’s not a mean bone in the movie’s body.
That’s a tricky maneuver to pull of when the Paul character is so foul mouthed and rude. I think in lesser hands - the script is by Pegg and Frost, and the film is directed by Greg Mottola - the movie might have reveled in some nastiness, but even at his meanest Paul is a pretty okay dude. Much credit must also be given to Seth Rogen, who provides Paul’s voice; Rogen has a natural ability to deliver a cutting punchline without coming across as cruel. There’s just a jolly tone in his voice that makes it work.
Paul himself is an impressive character. Not quite photoreal, he’s much more emotionally real. After the first few scenes you simply buy the character and quit worrying about pixels or mocap or anything. That’s when you know the FX work, when they no longer dazzle or distract but simply become a part of the storytelling. I don’t know that Paul is the best CGI character ever created, technically speaking, but he’s certainly the most organic.
Also great in the movie: everybody else. This is one of those rare films just brimming with great talent, so every single scene has somebody doing something funny. I’m an unabashed Bill Hader fan, and I feel like this is one of the few times a movie has used him well (the other being Adventureland, also a Mottola movie. Greg - make a movie STARRING Bill Hader, please!). The script for Paul is so good that each of the secondary characters are actual characters, not just joke machines, and so while Hader gets to be funny he also gets to have a character arc. Imagine that - a secondary character in a comedy having an arc!
If there’s one thing that bugged me about Paul it’s that towards the end it goes off the reference rails. I liked the way the film made some film and comic references within the world of the story - the two main geeks would talk that way, and Pegg and Frost, being geeks, really nail the way nerds throws references at each other. It’s not the overwhelming tidal wave you’ll find in geek pandering projects. But then at the end of the movie, when the stakes begin getting ramped up and there are some shoot outs and actual action scenes, the references start flowing very, very heavily, often in the form of people saying movie lines but not quoting them in character. In other words Bill Hader says ‘Smile, you son of a bitch’ not as his character quoting Jaws but as just a thing that is said in the dialogue. It’s a reference aimed not at the characters but at us. I understand the conceptual purpose here, when our characters have gone from being fans of movies to being in a movie-like situation, but it still rubs me the wrong way. I think Pegg was able to pull this off more subtly in conjunction with Edgar Wright in Hot Fuzz.
That said, Paul feels very much like an end of the geek culture movie, a film that ties a bow on certain aspects of the mainstreaming of nerds. There’s a loving statement made here about fandom, and I think it’s a variation on Shatner’s “Get a life” SNL sketch. The film is bookended by scenes at Comic Con; Pegg and Frost’s characters first come to Con as fans and later as creators. In between they’ve gotten out and lived a life, not just experienced it second or third hand through movies and comics and novels. They’ve not lost their love of geeky things, but they’ve come to a healthier, more in control place in their relationship with geekdom. In many ways it’s a mirror of Pegg and Frost’s own journey from friends and nerds to movie stars.
Paul is the sort of film I can watch a hundred times. It feels very much like Shaun of the Dead in that way, where whenever I come across it on TV I stop and watch the entire thing. Paul’s a road movie where the joy of hanging out with the characters is half the point, and these are characters that would be fun to revisit again and again.