If you never knew how big of geeks Simon Pegg and Nick Frost were in real life, you will after watching their new film, “Paul,” because it’s bursting at the seams with geeky sci-fi references – particularly the oeuvre of Steven Spielberg, which plays a big role in informing the world of the film. But while there are a lot of winks and nods directed at fanboys, “Paul” is a much broader and more accessible comedy than the duo’s other movies. That pretty much ensures it will perform better at the box office, but despite a steady stream of laughs throughout, the film too often relies on easy and crass jokes, and quite frankly, it’s beneath everyone involved.
Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) are the best of friends – a pair of British sci-fi geeks who have travelled to America to attend San Diego Comic-Con and then take a cross-country road trip across the U.S. Heartland on a tour of UFO hotspots. But when they witness a car crash on the highway and stop to make sure everyone is okay, they’re surprised to see a green alien named Paul (Seth Rogen) emerge from the shadows. Though they’re hesitant to trust him at first, Paul – who’s been marooned on Earth for over 60 years – wins the pair’s trust and help in getting back home. Along the way, they accidentally kidnap a Bible-thumper named Ruth (Kristen Wiig) who reluctantly joins their cause, all while being pursued by a dogged FBI agent (Jason Bateman) ordered to capture Paul for government testing.
There’s a host of other characters that play a part in the adventure – including Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio as a couple of bumbling agents assigned to Bateman, John Carroll Lynch as Ruth’s overprotective father, and Blythe Danner as the little girl who pulled Paul from the UFO wreckage 66 years earlier – but the heart and humor of the movie comes almost exclusively from its three stars. Pegg and Frost pick up right where they left off in “Hot Fuzz” with a natural onscreen chemistry that feeds off their real-life friendship, while Rogen really shines in the title role. This is a buddy movie not just about Graeme and Clive, but the bond that they form with the alien hitchhiker as well, so Paul’s relationship with them has to be completely believable (from the photo-real CGI to his human-like mannerisms) for it to work, and Rogen plays a big part in its success.
Where the movie falters, however, is in how poorly it utilizes the rest of its talented cast, because Graeme, Clive and Paul are so fully realized that everyone else appears one-dimensional in comparison. Kristen Wiig is particularly annoying as Graeme’s love interest, who experiences a drastic personality change shortly after meeting Paul when she abruptly gives up religion and starts swearing like a sailor. It’s meant to be funny, but it gets old really quick, and that’s the biggest problem with “Paul.” The script is needlessly lazy at times, and the only reason some of the jokes even work is because Pegg and Frost have such a great rapport. Fans of their previous work will definitely enjoy seeing the duo reunited once again, but while “Paul” is a solid action comedy featuring a standout performance from Seth Rogen, it’s a film that will make you wonder how much better it might have been with frequent collaborator Edgar Wright in charge.