‘Hi, I’m Paul’, a lost, lonely extra-terrestrial states to befuddled comic book geek, Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) in the wilds of the Arizona desert, Graeme’s best friend and travelling partner Clive (Nick Frost) having fainted in shock beside him.
‘Paul?’ Pegg replies incredulously in a moment of sublime deadpan timing, immediately putting a human face on the farcical outer-space premise of his and Frost’s first project as co-writers. Yes, Paul marks the return of the Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz stars, this time without regular collaborator Edgar Wright behind the camera.
Hailed as saviours of British comedy cinema, it’s perhaps inevitable that the lads’ first collaborative trip Stateside skews more mainstream than their previous efforts. With the pressure of a $50 million studio budget plus Superbad director Greg Mottola at the helm, this is undoubtedly true. But then, even a lesser Pegg and Frost vehicle still boasts 10 times more heart and wit than any of the crude dross currently passing for mainstream comedy (including the aforementioned Superbad).
But while the edges have undeniably been sanded down, it’s still an appreciably subversive and intelligent experience, boasting a higher quotient of crude gags for the wider audience while keeping the geek crowd happy with a plethora of delightful sci-fi references, some obvious, some blink and miss. Also worthy of note is Mottola’s sly visual skewering of the godfather of the genre, Steven Spielberg, kicking off in the opening sequence marking Paul’s arrival in 1947 Wyoming (all farmhouses and Close Encounters-style orange light beneath doorways).
We then jump forward to the present day, where two slightly different aliens, Graeme and Clive, find themselves in geek heaven at Comic-Con. They then hit the road to explore all the extra-terrestrial hot spots in the dusty, arid south-western corner of America, before stumbling upon the alien with the voice of Seth Rogen who will change both their lives. Paul, it transpires, has escaped from Area 51 and just wants to get home, but that’s tricky when humourless agent Jason Bateman is on his trail.
The tapestry is wider than either Shaun or Fuzz, staking a claim to both sci-fi comedy and action road movie territory. It’s much less parochial than any of the preceding films and ironically threatens to alienate the core audience even while gaining a bigger one. But this is a shame because neither Pegg nor Frost have compromised on their ideals or chemistry. At one point they even take a daring pop at American fundamentalism, courtesy of an excellent Kristen Wiig as a tub-thumper who ends up a integral part of Graeme and Clive’s journey, and whose belief system is shattered by the presence of little green men.
Unfortunately, it remains little more than a cheeky swipe at a controversial issue. A deeper expose would no doubt have taken the film into darker, deeper territory, but then that doesn’t seem to be the point. Throughout, Pegg, Frost and Mottola are more interested in keeping events buoyant and lively, utilising hilarious support turns, some excellent motion-capture work on Paul himself and the occasional killer in-joke to forge a self-described ‘love letter to Spielberg’. The humour skips across the surface like a stone but frequent ripples remind us of the superior construction of Pegg and Frost’s work (a bluegrass cover of John Williams’ Star Wars Cantina Band in a local bar is amusingly nonchalant, almost challenging the audience to pick up on the joke).
In the end, Paul is something of a conundrum, proof that a lesser Pegg/Frost work can still feature more intelligence than most. In the end, the cliquey, geeky humour goes a long way towards mediating the crass, crowd pleasing presence of Rogen, although he’s much more bearable here as a voice-only part of the wider tapestry. If the film as a whole ultimately falls between two interplanetary stools, it’s no less enjoyable for it: pacily directed and smartly scripted, with two immensely likeable leads and a clutch of memorable support turns. Spielberg, Mulder and Scully and any number of Paul’s disparate influences would be proud.