Paul, the CGI alien with Seth Rogen’s voice, is an irresistible creature. With an E.T.-shaped head and big blue eyes, he wears cargo shorts and flip-flops, smokes a cigarette, and best of all has Rogen’s deadpan delivery. When Paul appears to two British fan boys – so geeked out they’ve just left Comic-Con for an RV tour of America’s alien-sighting landmarks – the panicked men try to communicate in ways the English-speaking alien won’t understand. Rogen hilariously, accurately snaps, “Was that Klingon? You psychotic nerd!”
But after its early promise, Paul goes downhill fast – not drastically downhill but enough to be disappointing. This perfectly pleasant but uneven film, written by and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the nerds, is often more clever than funny. Pegg, of course starred in the zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead, which he co-wrote with Edgar Wright, a brilliant comedy that walks the line between being a parody and playing things straight. A zombie movie that mocks zombie movies, Shaun can make you laugh and gross you out at the same time.
Hot Fuzz, a cop-movie spoof also starring Pegg and Frost, was not quite as funny, and Paul a bit less funny than that. It is loaded with so many alien-movie references that Steven Spielberg himself puts in a voice cameo, but Pegg and Frost seem so fond of those old films that they don’t have enough distance to joke about them.
When the geeks, who have quintessential Brit names Graeme and Clive, try to help their new-found alien friend escape government agents who think he has served his purpose, Paul becomes a road movie built on a series of pop-culture gestures and references that just land; there’s no spin to them. We can pick up the nods to Men in Black and Close Encounters, and appreciate the shrewd idea that Paul resembles E.T. because that’s what humans are conditioned to expect after all those movies, but nodding to something doesn’t automatically make it comic.
Disappointing doesn’t mean bad, though, and the film has its high points. Kristen Wiig plays Ruth Buggs, the daughter of a Bible-thumping RV-park owner; she wears a worn-out creationist T-shirt with the image of Jesus shooting Charles Darwin. If only Paul was so consistently satiric. Jason Bateman is solid as always, playing a government agent determined to find Paul, and Sigourney Weaver is his boss, so you know there will be an Alien reference eventually. Greg Mottola directs with full awareness of the history behind alien movies; he quote visual cliches but is never cliched himself.
And of course there is Rogen, who makes the movie worth watching. I’m tempted to say Rogen saves another film (as he did recently with The Green Hornet), but that would short-change the other smart people behind Paul, smart enough to make you think the film could have been much better.