You have a friend who’s famous for his dinner parties, and this time he hosts a subpar soirée. The food’s not as good as usual, the wine is très ordinaire, the guests don’t quite click. That’s the sort of disappointment that crept over me as I watched Paul, the new comedy from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. They play two English creators of fantasy comic books — Graeme the writer (Pegg) and Clive the illustrator (Frost) — who on a trip to Nevada’s Area 51 befriend a four-foot-tall extraterrestrial named Paul.
Back in England, Pegg and Frost played the put-upon hero and the house doofus of two affectionate, semibrilliant parody films, Shaun of the Dead in 2004 and Hot Fuzz in 2007. Those movies, which Pegg co-wrote with director Edgar Wright, spurred a deep pool of good feeling for the trio, especially among fans of zombie movies (Shaun) and Brit crime dramas (Hot Fuzz). Before that, Pegg and Wright also collaborated on the Channel 4 domestic sitcom Spaced, which boasted a charm level to match its high IQ. With Wright decamping to make Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Pegg and Frost came up with the script for Paul. How bad could this party be?
Not bad, but certainly not good; classify the movie as lazy fun. It goes for, and occasionally achieves, an amiable vibe that requires no particular wit or skill. Instead of Wright, with his spring-coiled expertise at picture making, Pegg and Frost settled for Judd Apatow stablemate Greg Mottola (Undeclared, Superbad), the kind of director who doesn’t think his job is to make things happen; rather, he stands around and hopes things happen, and when they don’t, he inserts a mouth-agape reaction from one of the characters, or an actor falling backward to the ground, as a visual rim shot to cue audience laughter.
All you have to know about Paul is that the role of the alien is voiced by Seth Rogen in his jovial-stoner mode. When Paul’s spacecraft crashed back in the 1940s, the government kept him prisoner in Area 51, where he remained until he escaped into Graeme and Clive’s care after a road accident. Over the decades, with nothing to do but answer questions from men in black and watch TV, Paul became an expert in American cultural conspiracy. (Toking on some weed, he remarks, “I’m pretty sure this is the stuff that killed Dylan.” Graeme: “He isn’t dead.” Paul, with a knowing smile: “Isn’t he?”) He was also an important source for the weavers of Hollywood fantasy. He takes credit for The X Files (“Mulder was my idea!”) and for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
Anyway, those two Steven Spielberg films served as the twin inspirations for Paul‘s plot: of wayfarers on a quest to meet interplanetary travelers and of an alien stranded on Earth and needing civilian help to get him back home. Along the way to Paul’s pickup spot, he, Graeme and Clive try to avoid three mysterious Feds (Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio and Jason Bateman) and two vicious rednecks. They also adopt, or possibly kidnap, Ruth Buggs (Kristin Wiig), a Christian fundamentalist with a T-shirt that depicts Jesus shooting Charles Darwin. It’s exactly the menagerie that foreigners like Graeme and Clive would expect to find in that huge, crucial, crazy and wonderful place called America — at least, Movie America.
We’ll leave for another time the question of how much the Hollywood mythos contributed to the world’s choice of America over the Soviet Union as a model to emulate and envy. (In short: we had Bogie, Marilyn and Animal House; they had movies about tractors.) But there’s no question that locating the center of U.S. filmmaking in that geographic oxymoron — a desert by the sea — attracted filmmakers from all over the world, and not just the German-speaking geniuses (Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak) who were fleeing Hitler and needed a place to work. In 1969 alone, three major European directors made movies in the American West: Jacques Demy made Model Shop, Agnes Varda made Lions Love, and Michelangelo Antonioni made Zabriskie Point. The same year, some homegrown Hollywood guys hatched Easy Rider, another road movie about two guys who pick up a strange dude (though then it was Jack Nicholson). Paul is just the latest example of clever aliens heeding America’s siren call.
These days, of course, our popular culture is instantly assimilated by everyone everywhere. The new Pegg-Frost film, like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Spaced, is crammed with gaggy allusions to movies of all kinds, from Capturing the Friedmans to Lorenzo’s Oil; but the inexhaustible touchstone is Hollywood sci-fi. The alien’s name could be a tribute to George Pal, producer of the pioneering SF films Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, The War of the Worlds and Conquest of Space. Graeme and Clive’s visit to a Nevada roadhouse, where John Williams’ Star Wars cantina theme is played, underlines the actor-writers’ debt to George Lucas — a connection made explicit in their new vidcast, in which they play C-3PO and R2-D2 as the idiot descendants of Laurel and Hardy.
There’s nothing either offensive or memorable about the movie’s R-rated humor — it’s mostly mild frat language and boner jokes — which can be synopsized by the shot of Paul, in the front passenger seat of Graeme’s RV, dropping trou and treating an adjacent driver to the spectacle of his gray butt. (Headline: Alien Moons Earthling!) But the movie deserves a short spanking for its misuse of two Saturday Night Live stalwarts. Wiig, many of whose SNL characters (Penelope, Gilly, Shanna, Dooneese) tend to hijack the skits they’re in, gets to stretch a bit here, but only to shift from the extremes of born-again zealotry to inept profanity; honestly, that’s the whole character. Hader is given even less to do: in a word, glower. That’s not the way for a gifted comic actor to spend his summer vacation.
The movie is so inattentive to its main characters that it never thinks to have these obsessive creators of space-themed comic books ask Paul what it’s like where he comes from. But that’s just further proof of the low bar Pegg and Frost have set for themselves. Even people who are naturally funny, like these two, are not always funny — not at a dinner table and not in this slapdash confection of an alien comedy.