PLOT: Two British comic book nerds decide to take an RV from Comic-Con across America's southwest, visiting famous extraterrestrial sites along the way. Before long they meet Paul, an extraterrestrial on the run from the government he's been helping for the past 25 years.
REVIEW: PAUL, from director Greg Mottola (SUPERBAD) and writers/stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ) is an amiable comedy with a high entertainment quotient that probably doubles if you're a person not unlike the lead characters. A couple of nerds who feast on comics and sci-fi movies, Grahame (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are guys who have spent perhaps more time than they should have with each other than out in the real world. They have an easy rapport with one another, not so much with the ladies; they go crazy over a sci-fi author no one has ever heard of; they cheer when they see the strange little robot from "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" in person. They've dreamed of meeting a visitor from another galaxy and envision sexy extraterrestrial babes from beyond with three breasts. Taking a road trip from San Diego Comic Con through America with stops at the land's most infamous alien sightings, they're geeks in a proverbial comic shop, having the best time of their lives. (The fact that they've never been to America before doesn't hurt.) Then, of course, they meet Paul.. and everything gets even better. Well, if you don't count all the bullets they have to dodge.
Paul, a squat little alien with the face of the legendary "greys" and the voice of Seth Rogen, is a pot-smoking fugitive from his homebase of Area 51. Having been a useful tool for the army for years in terms of intergalactic intelligence and just plain pragmatic smarts, Paul has discovered to his great dismay that his time is up and his brain is about to be carved up. Fortunately, the two geeks are willing to help take him to a secret location where his brothers from another planet are scheduled to pick him up. All they have to do is avoid a determined federal agent (Jason Bateman) and the two flunkies he's saddled with (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) who are in hot pursuit.
PAUL gets off to a semi-shaky start, as the comedy pitched at us feels a tad more generic than what we're used to from the duo of Pegg and Frost. Surely hoping to make a crossover hit accessible to general audiences, there's a batch of low-brow gags that seem rather gratuitous, including a series of faintings, the apparent impressive size of Paul's reproductive organ, and a plethora of run-on profanity from Kristen Wiig's character, Ruth, a devout Christian who tags along for the ride and eventually learns the fine art of swearing. The rather immature state of this humor seems at odds initially with Pegg and Frost's more clever, self-referential forte, but PAUL eventually finds itself in a nice groove when it decides that it's really going to cater to fans of the latter.
PAUL, not unlike "Spaced" and SHAUN OF THE DEAD, is catnip for people who grew up spouting references from movies - or still practice that fine art. If you're liable to throw a "Get away from her you bitch!" or "Smile you sonofabitch!" into your conversation, well, so too are Pegg and Frost. That's not to say that PAUL isn't an accessible comedy on its own; fans of Rogen in particular will be pleased to see that the little alien he's given voice to is basically a CG version of the goofy, infectious-laugh-having comedian (though the pot-smoking aspect seems a little passe), and the two Englishmen are so likable that catching all of the inside jokes isn't a prerequisite for enjoying their very natural, charming chemistry. For film geeks, however, there's so much to appreciate; there's a wealth of riffs and nods to movies as obvious as STAR WARS to more esoteric titles like CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS, but it's the boys' love for classic Spielberg that's as evident as ever, right down to a sweet conclusion that pays homage to both E.T. and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. (The director even make a vocal cameo.)
PAUL is certainly not going to be for everyone though, as a very intriguing streak of what can surely be interpreted as anti-Christian sentiment runs throughout the movie, with Paul a pretty determined voice of reason in converting the skeptical Ruth character, a hardcore Creationist when we first meet her. Paul's - and the movie's - view of Creationism can be called condescending at best, disdainful at worst. Ruth's father (John Carroll Lynch) is a Bible-toting loon who eventually gives chase after what he interprets as his daughter's kidnapping at the hands of a demon; the character is mostly an easy joke, and also the least appealing person in the film. Let's just say Bill O'Reilly and his ilk will most likely not be giving PAUL anything resembling a seal of approval.
That aside, the movie's vibe is mostly good-natured and harmless; Mottola, as can be expected, populates the film with a supporting cast of dependable comic vets giving their all in eccentric roles: Jason Bateman does what he does best, playing the smartest guy in the room exasperated with everyone else's stupidity. Hader and Lo Truglio get a few funny bits as a pair of greenhorns in way over their head. Blythe Danner shows some real adroitness with the foul language given to her (yes, everyone in this movie has a serious potty mouth) and Sigourney Weaver, in a brief but crucial role, is a very welcome presence indeed. Of course, she's in this movie because of her past with aliens; you wouldn't expect anything less from PAUL...