Judging only by the trailers that have played for “Superbad” director Greg Mottola’s “Paul,” one would assume the film was made solely for geeky sci-fi fans who love crude humor. While that is certainly a prominent aspect of the film, there is a lot more to “Paul.”
In a March 16 interview with Mottola for the film blog The Playlist, he cited early Steven Speilberg films like “The Sugarland Express” as major influences on “Paul.” This is odd considering “Paul,” the story of a runaway alien who looks to two humans for help in returning to his home planet, sounds more in line with Speilberg’s “E.T.” than the suspense-filled chase comedy that is “The Sugarland Express.”
Only when you see “Paul” do you realize exactly what Mottola is talking about. While it’s certainly about extra-terrestrial hijinks, a great deal of suspense and comedy in the vein of the previously mentioned Speilberg film flows throughout this exciting slice of entertainment.
Comparisons between “Paul,” which stars the British comedy duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and the pair’s previous collaborations with director Edgar Wright on “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” were bound to arise, but Mottola certainly takes the film in directions that only this sort of creative collaboration could have.
While Wright is known for his kinetic camera movement and snappy dialogue, Mottola allows the film and its audience to take a breath and look around at the beauty of the New Mexico setting. While Pegg and Frost travel from the nerd haven known as Comic Con in San Diego, California, we are slowly introduced to the desert backdrop of our story through lovely glimpses of the sun setting over New Mexico’s canyons.
On this geeky pilgrimage from the United Kingdom, Pegg and Frost’s characters of Graeme and Clive don’t just visit Comic Con, but travel through all the extra-terrestrial landmarks in New Mexico. We begin with the city of Roswell and the mysterious “Black Mailbox” outside the gates of Area 51, and end with a disastrous car accident that introduces the foul-mouthed alien Paul.
It appears as if Graeme and Clive were anticipating a quiet journey through Western America, but Paul’s quest to return back to his home planet looks to be anything but serene. After persuading Graeme to accept his request for help, the pair set their sites on getting Paul home, much to the chagrin of the bitter Clive.
Along the way to Paul’s pick-up location in Wyoming, the trio encounters some of America’s best offerings of the strange and distasteful. There’s a God-fearing RV park owner who’s daughter falls in love with Graeme, a violent pair of rednecks and a fleet of federal agents looking to take Paul back to Area 51.
All extra-terrestrial mishaps aside, “Paul” is at its best when it’s acting as a satirical road-trip film, which is a very rare breed. Few can compete with films like director John Landis’ “Blues Brothers,” which offered a scathing criticism of the American lifestyle throughout its travels and, like “Paul,” was able to make you laugh about it.
Though in the case of “The Blues Brothers,” both the characters of Jake and Elwood Blues were two music lovers from Chicago. With “Paul,” we have two British men, and an alien from another planet offering some of the most objective criticisms of America you could imagine.
While the film does pay blatant homage to Speilberg’s “E.T.,” and especially “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” it never feels as if the references come at the price of the film’s plot or characters. A film like 2008’s “Fanboys,” which followed a group of “Star Wars” fans in 1999 trying to steal an early print of “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” for their dying friend, attempts what “Paul” has done, but it’s loyalty to “Star Wars” got the best of it.
Much of the film’s success rests not only in Pegg and Frost, but also the supporting cast. There are Saturday Night Live regulars Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig, “Zodiac” actor John Carroll Lynch, the charming Jason Bateman and a heart warming yet hilarious appearance by actress Blythe Danner.
Then there is the character of Paul, which is a computer generated creation played by “Knocked Up” actor Seth Rogen. A lot of credit goes to Rogen for making his recognizable voice and overall persona fit Paul and help steer the character away from following in the footsteps of creatures such as the much maligned Jar Jar Binks in “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.”
This is Greg Mottola’s fourth feature film, following the personal “Adventureland” and the raunchy comedy hit “Superbad.” It’s reassuring to see a talented new voice making their way into films aimed at a wide audience that don’t succumb to typical Hollywood formulas.
Mottola has created a wonderful film with “Paul,” and it is certainly an accomplishment. “Paul” feels like the light summer entertainment we tend to yearn for come April or May, and it’s surprisingly free of terrible acting, weak screenwriting and loud explosions.
When the character Paul initially attempts to persuade Graeme to help him get home, he encourages him to “roll the dice.” If only the public and major film studios would also follow Paul’s advice, there’s a chance that well crafted entertainment like this would find its way into movie theaters more often.