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The spirit and intent behind Paul turns out to be far more admirable than the movie that results from it. The third feature to co-star Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, but the first not to be directed by their longtime collaborator Edgar Wright, Paul combines Pegg and Frost's frenzied, pop culture-referencing comedy with director Greg Mottola's loose, amiable style to mixed results. Though Mottola shows great skill directing the action and sci-fi elements in a style deliberately mimicking early Spielberg, Pegg and Frost have turned in their weakest script yet, and every time Paul builds up any comedic momentum or genuine character development, it eventually winds up spinning its wheels.
Perhaps the best surprise in Paul is that, 10 years after starring together on BBC's Spaced, Pegg and Frost have lost none of the easy energy that makes them so great as a pair. Though they're a bit long in the tooth to play two nerds making a pilgrimage to Comic Con, they sell their characters Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) as guys thrilled both to meet their comic book idol (Jeffrey Tambor) and take a road trip across the American Southwest, a place apparently iconic even for British sci-fi geeks. What makes their trip spectacular, though, is a run-in with Paul, a little gray alien voiced by Seth Rogen who has escaped his imprisonment at Area 51 and enlists Graeme and Clive to drive him… well, he's not telling them where just yet.
Graeme and Clive adapt remarkably quickly to the presence of an alien in an RV-- they're true believers, after all-- but in a nice twist he throws a wedge between the two pals, in the way any new, cool guy might upset a longtime friendship. Things get even more complicated when they pick up a conservative Christian woman (Kristen Wiig) used to secluded life at a trailer park but shown all the universe's secrets thanks to Paul's neat mind-meld trick. Meanwhile Paul also has three black-suited government agents on his tail, the ruthless competent one played by Jason Bateman, the knucklehead wannabes played by Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio. They're all given their commands by a female boss back at headquarters, who isn't seen until the end but whose voice is unmistakably Sigourney Weaver's.
The film goes to great pains to hide Weaver's identity, but at the same time courts an audience that would know her voice immediately, crammed with references big and small to virtually every geek-tested film of the late 70s and 80s. That's par for the course for Pegg and Frost, who lovingly skewered other genres in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but the references don't feel quite as organic here; there's a good laugh in hearing a country-western bar band play the cantina theme from Star Wars, or seeing Spielberg's Duel up on a movie marquee, but a lot of direct movie quotes earn groans more than laughs, particularly when Weaver's iconic Aliens line comes into play. So often the script seems to be throwing all its references against the wall just to see what sticks, and while the laughs come often enough, it lacks the coherence of what we've come to expect from Pegg and Frost.
Mottola's direction goes a long way to shore up the shaky story, beautifully photographing the New Mexico locations and always keeping an eye on what little character development the script includes. And the cast, even when given jokes that fall flat, is unbeatable-- Wiig gets away from her more schticky work on SNL to present a real and often hilarious character, Hader and Lo Truglio's bumbling cops dynamic makes them maybe even more likable than they should be, and Bateman seems to be having the most fun of all as the grim spook on a secret mission. Rogen's voice seems strange coming out of the tiny alien body of Paul, but he's adept at both the film's endlessly raunchy humor and Paul's sweet affection for the wacko humans he encounters. A lot of the other character arcs don't quite work--even Graeme and Clive's strained bromance is somewhat forgotten by the end-- but each actor's almost effortless comedic skill allows us to invest in their characters all the same.
Given how well Mottola and his actors seem to understand the road trip sci-fi genre they're paying homage to, and how excellently Pegg and Frost have tweaked pop culture for their own amusement in the past, it's a bit of a mystery when Paul never quite takes off on any of its own good ideas. It's funny enough, and frequently works on an emotional level too, but for every joke or scene that hits there's another that falls flat or opportunity that's missed entirely. Nearly everyone involved in Paul has been part of some kind of comedic masterpiece, which may be why I can't help wishing this perfectly good movie had gotten a little closer to being great.