Review: 'Paul'

You've got to wonder which genre Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are going to tackle next.

Having poked fun at zombies in 2004's "Shaun of the Dead" and the action/crime category in 2007's "Hot Fuzz," the pair are back with "Paul." The film mainly trades in simultaneously celebrating and tearing down science fiction fandom, but also dabbles in stoner comedy, buddy road movies and conspiracy theory. At its core, the film basically could be "E.T.," if the alien were foul-mouthed and constantly high.

British tourists Pegg and Frost (the former plays a comic book artist, the latter a mildly successful sci-fi writer) are fulfilling a childhood dream of visiting America, beginning with San Francisco's Comic-Con. Post-convention, they rent an RV and head out on a tour of UFO hot spots including Area 51, the Black Mailbox and Roswell, N.M.

It's on this leg of the trip that they run into "Paul," a pot-smoking, wise-cracking, world-weary (our world, anyway) little green man voiced to good comic effect by Seth Rogen. Paul has escaped the clandestine government facility where he has been held for decades since the long-ago crash of his spaceship in the desert, and he wants to go home.

Hiding out in an RV with a pair of slackers is not quite the same as disappearing into Gertie's closet, but Paul does share some traits with E.T. Both love Reese's Pieces, and we find out through a funny voice cameo by Steven Spielberg that Paul likely inspired that story, as well as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

"Paul" takes loving pokes at both of those films — Pegg and Frost must be fans — as well as others, including the "Alien" franchise, "Star Wars" and even television's "The X-Files."

If Pegg and Frost turn in predictably solid performances, the Americans in the film (with the exception of Rogen, whose CGI alien is, oddly enough, the movie's most fully realized character) don't fare as well.

For starters, there's "Saturday Night Live's" overexposed Kristin Wiig bringing nothing new to her fundamentalist trailer park character who mostly swears a lot (and ineptly) and serves as a love interest for Pegg.

Jason Bateman, likewise, brings little to his hard-guy Fed role.

The actors hanging around the film's edges do better. David Koechner ("The Office's" Todd Packer) is a hillbilly hoot, and Jeffrey Tambor steals a very short scene as a famous sci-fi author. "SNL's" Bill Hader is humorous as an inept agent, and Blythe Danner is charming and funny as an aging pothead whose life was deeply affected by childhood interaction with Paul (the alien is named after her character's dog).

"Paul" is directed by Greg Mottola, whose other recent works include "Superbad" and "Adventureland." It's consistently funnier than the former and not as good as the latter, but it feels more mainstream than either.

The visual effects are good, from the gigantic spaceships to Paul himself, motion-captured in Gollum-like fashion. This film simply wouldn't work if the audience couldn't accept that Paul was real.

And, toward the end, it dispatches a character in a scene that rivals Steve Coogan's shocking exit from "Tropic Thunder."

"Paul" is, in the end, an engaging road trip (emphasis on "trip").


Our grade: B-

Genres: Comedy, Adventure, Science Fiction

Running Time: 104 min

MPAA rating: R

Release Date: Feb 18, 2011