The Best Movie Critic + TIME

Paul

Well, Paul has come and gone from theaters with very little hullabaloo. That's a shame. While Paul isn't the best movie in the history of comedy, it's a good flick, occasionally downright hilarious. Expectations were very high, the movie being as it was the first non-Edgar Wright directed team up of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Lukewarm reactions from early taste makers kept Paul's audience away from the theaters. Which stinks, because there's a lot to love in this movie.

So let's get this out of the way right up front. No, Paul is nowhere near the level of original genius of Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. Though all three movies are essentially feature length Valentines to their respective genres, Paul is much more on the nose than Wright's movies, straddling a not-so-fine line between homage and parody. It's, well, American-y. Brits Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) and E.T. Paul (voiced by Seth Rogan) are all fishies out of water, but they've landed on our shore, and the movie's sensibilities are markedly New World. Which is fine. Paul lands somewhere between Wright, Judd Aptow, and John Landis, a mixture that is, for the most part, totally awesome.

Sci-fi writer Clive and cover artist Graeme, childhood friends on a dream vacation to San Diego Comic Con, and a subsequent road trip across the American Southwest for a self-guided tour of famous UFO hot spots. Before they can get very far, the run into (almost literally) Paul, an alien - really the alien, the famous bug-eyed green guy of conspiracy theorist legend. It turns out Paul, who's been hanging out and smoking pot at Area 51 for the last 50-odd years, has taught our government an awful lot about science and the universe and stuff - he even lent a certain bearded director some ideas about how to make a warm-hearted, feel good alien movie back in the early 80s... Paul discovers that the government plans to terminate him so they can dissect his brain, so he hightails it outta there and hits the road with Clive and Graeme.

I went into Paul expecting a lot from Pegg and Frost and very little from Seth Rogan, but I’m shocked to say that what I got was almost the reverse of that. Not that Pegg and Frost are bad by any stretch, but their chemistry is a little off in the movie's early scenes. It's only when Paul shows up that things really click. I’m not Rogan's biggest fan, nor do I out and out despise him. He’s often shoehorned into the "lovable lug" roles, and he does fine, but the shtick is getting a little tired. Happily, Paul is his best and most endearing role to date. The CGI'ed character unshackles the comedian from his normal physicality and gives him the chance to stretch his improv chops and show off a little. I'm really impressed that Rogan nails funny, self-depreciating, off the cuff comments in character, not as a heavy, slouchy pothead dude, but as a little, green, weird eyed pothead dude. Paul is one part Rogan-esque slacker, one part hyper-intelligent shaman, with a big heart and a snarky sense of humor. I'm not convinced that all of those characteristics would have fit together as well with another actor in the role.

As good as Rogan is, however, Kristen Wiig is even better. I first noticed the SNL vet in Drew Barrymore's Whip It. Even then, in a smaller supporting role, Wiig managed to be funny, smart, attractive, and endearing all at the same time. I'll admit, it's gotta be tough out there for female comedians. There are certainly bad woman comedians who have gotten by on their looks alone. On the flipside, many of the funniest female comedians have a sort of removed personality, like Gilda Radner or Madeline Kahn, nearly de-sexualized, one of the boys. Wiig has it all, and on top of that she seems like a real person. She has that intangible onscreen charm that you don't see much of these days, comedy or otherwise. Her role in Paul should have been terrible: a naive fundamentalist Christian who ends up on the road with Paul, Clive, and Graeme and has her mind opened to the ways of the world. Imagine if Paul had been made ten years ago and Molly Shannon had gotten the role. I shudder to think. Having Wiig's character excitedly learn to cuss for the first time in her life is the best excuse for a hard R rating in a comedy. Judd Aptow can eat it. "Bag of tits" is my new favorite expression, I just haven't found a socially acceptable time or place to use it.

If Paul has a weak point, it's Greg Mottola's direction. Though the small comedy moments are fine - in line with his work on Superbad - the bigger action scenes are obvious and vaguely action-y in a way that gave me a 90s sci-fi-action vibe a la Men in Black or Independence Day. I guess you could argue that the atmosphere is purposefully 90s blockbuster. After all, Paul spends the majority of it's run time riffing on geek favorites. However, it distracts from the comedy, leaving a few passages D.O.A. when they didn't have to be. Luckily this is a small distraction, as everything else about Paul is inspired enough to more than compensate.

With a few notable exceptions, the digital effects in Paul are top notch. There are some shots where Paul looks as integrated into his surroundings as any other CGI element I’ve seen. It’s amazing that the work that WETA did with Gollum and that Industrial Lights and Magic did with Davey Jones in the Pirates movies have lead to a moviemaking world where a CGI character can be fully integrated into a medium budget, semi-improvised lowbrow comedy. That blows my mind.

Paul's not going to bowl you over with its originality, but it's a warm blanket of a buddy comedy, custom tailored to geeks like me, and let's face it, you. It's anchored by two great and two very good performances. It's not like there's a plethora of great comedies being churned out week after week, and Paul will more than do in a pinch.

-Ben

p.s. HAVE YOU SEEN THIS!?!?!?

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Paul + TIME