Unquestionably Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are funny guys. Their performances in the films Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead are excellent and Pegg has done plenty of solo work that’s also quite satisfying. Where Pegg shines the brightest, however, is when he’s writing, and he has the track record to prove it. Those two other Pegg/Frost films? Co-written by Pegg with writer/director Edgar Wright, who’s also something of a comic genius. I genuinely look forward to the next Pegg/Wright collaboration. In the meanwhile, however, we have Paul.
Let me say at the outset that I do not think Paul is a bad movie. I think there’s some pretty funny stuff in its 104 minutes and, as usual, Pegg and Frost are top-notch. At the same time, I have to admit that Paul does not reach the heights of Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, and I attribute this largely to the fact that Edgar Wright was not on board to give Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s screenplay the necessary comic pizazz that would put the film over the top.
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost really do work well together and I’ll bet they had a great deal of fun constructing the story that would become Paul. In it, two English schlubs with a fondness for all things nerdy and sci-fi make the great trek to the San Diego Comic-Con and further plan to travel to Area 51 to take their pictures with various geek landmarks out in that desert wasteland. In a rented RV they will travel the country on a real adventure across the landscape of American esoterica. That alone might have made for an interesting, if less comedic, exploration as the characters awaken to the fact that crazy people are still crazy whether they’re American-born or not. But Paul has something entirely different in mind.
I spoil nothing by telling you that when the boys reach Area 51, a singularly strange event occurs: they encounter an alien. He doesn’t come plummeting out of the sky, but arrives by crashing a stolen car. He speaks English (his voice is supplied by Seth Rogen), wears baggy shorts and appears fully conversant in American pop culture. His name is Paul. He enlists the aid of Pegg and Frost’s characters in his escape from the shadowy men in black, represented by Jason Bateman. Bateman’s character remains in relentless pursuit of Paul throughout the picture, always one crucial step behind, spurred on by a mysterious woman’s voice on his cell phone, a voice that urges him to kill Paul at the first opportunity.
Though Paul throws away the potential for a humorous road picture about America’s weird UFO subculture, it remains firmly tied to road movie conventions. As Pegg and Frost shuttle Paul toward his rendezvous point, all three of them learn about life, love and laughter, which is kind of the point of all movies like these. Unfortunately for the audience, the amusement factor is often missing, with a lot of the jokes falling short of the mark. This wants to be another Shaun of the Dead, but there’s no strict genre template from which Pegg and Frost’s script can launch loving satire. The best road movie send-up has already been made (National Lampoon’s Vacation), and even that was scrabbling desperately for gags by the time it was all over.
If nothing else, Paul is an extremely earnest movie. Despite the fact that this is a comedy and accordingly shouldn’t be taken seriously in any meaningful way, it does take occasional stabs at weightier topics, such as religion. Like most of the rest of the picture, these attempts aren’t one hundred percent successful, but I do give the movie credit for trying.
Throughout the whole running time of Paul, I wondered just what a Pegg/Wright script for the movie would be like. Something about Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz that neither movie truly gets credit for is how exquisitely crafted every moment is. Those films are packed with jokes, large and small, and even the slightest detail is laid down by those men. Watch the extras on your Hot Fuzz DVD and see how Pegg and Wright do a skidding-shoe gag over and over again until it’s exactly right. Paul does not have that tightness at all. Sometimes nothing of significance is happening and the movie feels accordingly slack. This is not the standard to which we’ve become accustomed when Simon Pegg is involved.
But as I said at the first, Paul is not a bad movie. I won’t even go so far as to say Paul is a middling movie because there’s enough fun stuff to push it out of the average tier, if only just. I wouldn’t consider my time wasted by any means, but unlike those Pegg/Wright collaborations, I don’t see myself returning to Paul at any point in the future. One time was plenty.
I will reveal one audience who thought Paul was a laugh riot: my son. As you know from reading other entries on this blog, my son has autism and as a result he does not react to many things in the way a neurotypical child would. I would venture to say that fully 75% or more of the movie’s jokes sailed right over his head, but he was taken by the cartoonish, CGI Paul and the broader moments of comedy and when the dénouement of the picture arrived he was so moved that he actually cried. As a result of my son’s reaction to the movie, I was able to more fully grasp the kind of reaction Pegg and Frost were going for with their script. I personally wasn’t enchanted by the comedy or the drama, though I laughed a little here and there, but here was a kid who experienced the movie exactly as it was meant to be experienced. I found this more entertaining than the film itself.
In the final analysis, I can only say this: if you’re looking for top-tier Simon Pegg/Nick Frost comedy, you’re not going to find it with Paul. On the other hand, if you’re feeling forgiving and want to be amused here and there by a perfectly harmless comedy, Paul is a good choice. It’s really up to you.