By Scott Martin
Paul, Spain / France / UK / USA, 2011
Directed by Greg Mottola
Paul is the simple story of an alien with an attitude and a heart of gold. In fact, the entire point of the film is so sweet that it seems almost impossible to believe that most of the film itself is crude, and partly cruel. Unlike Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), which were helmed by Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have brought us an eager “who said it” film filled with countless references and … political poignancy. All this, from Superbad (2007) and Adventureland (2009) director Greg Mottola. Mottola’s filmography is small, but consistent – he’s a comedian’s director with a lot of his own to say. That’s a form of direction I’ve always appreciated; the ability to let others shine while imbuing your own specific messages into the forefront. But here, Paul has mismatched its intent with its delivery. And that, in retrospect, hinders a positive remembrance of the film.
When I saw this film about a couple of weeks ago, I remember that I laughed throughout. It’s a funny, sharp, and deliriously rich comedy. With the talents of Pegg, Frost, and Mottola, we also get Bill Hader, Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Sigourney Weaver, David Koechner, and Seth Rogen’s voice as the alien Paul. Outside of Pegg, Frost, Rogen, and Wiig, all of the other actors have borderline cameo roles, but are given enough material to stretch their legs and get the ball rolling.
Kristen Wiig shines brighter than the others, as the one eyed (but doe-eyed) hardcore Christian. She discovers Paul, after he joins Pegg and Frost on their road trip through “invaded America” to see ComiCon and other science fiction attractions, and her faith is shaken. Her switch between a biting Bible-thumper, and a complete and savage heretic is hilarious, involved, and thorough. It is a brilliant and thoughtful comedic performance. Another strong performance is Jason Bateman’s, as the FBI Agent Mulder-type hunting Paul and his drivers. Not only given the opportunity for straight-laced and straight-faced comedic moments, he’s given the chance to show a bit of dramatic muscle as well, and he excels.
Most reviews I’ve read for this film have pinpointed its numerous references as a concern. Apparently, it takes away from the film, rather than enhancing it. I disagree fervently. With Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Pegg and Frost have pretty much cemented their place in the Apatow genre (think The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up), as their films are a veritable “what’s what” of references and homages. If you don’t expect that going in, you’re not as prepared for the film as you should have been. It’s become a staple of Pegg/Frost pairings to pay respects to the people who inspire them. They have a long list of muses, and everyone must be recognized.
Compared to other films they’ve released, this is a lesser effort. The struggle shown between Atheists and Christians is obvious and unneeded, and where the partly cruel part comes in, and the multiple storylines tend to clash with each other more than they should have been allowed to in the cutting room. But it all ties together quite nicely, if not a bit too conveniently. The technical aspects leave much to be desired, though. The cinematography, music, etc., are all fairly bland.
The standout, above all other things mentioned before, however, is the transformation of Seth Rogen into the alien pictured above. Absolutely flawless computer imagery. It’s been a while since I’ve been so impressed, but this is the kind of work that should be remembered a year from now when the Oscars roll around again. Having made dinosaurs look real in 1993, I’m proud that an independent film can make an alien come to bright life in such a vivid, oddly tangible fashion. Most of that, though, is due to the undeniably strong work by Seth Rogen. He’s a gentle actor, and a comedic force, the pitch-perfect casting for such a role.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com