My first impression of PAUL from fast forwarding through the ads on my DVR was not good. Silly looking alien. Reminding me about SUPERBAD. Eh.
My impression was wrong. I gave in to seeing the film only because I learned the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost were in it. Regular readers know that I love, love, love them. The brilliant men from SPACED, SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and HOT FUZZ drew me in. Some readers will remember that I teach a course on British Humor and recently gave a talk on SHAUN OF THE DEAD in London and that Simon Pegg tweeted about my SHAUN OF THE DEAD article. How could I not go?
Simon Pegg (Graeme) and Nick Frost (Clive) wrote this piece. The other Pegg/Frost vehicles I love were all written by Pegg and Edgar Wright, with Wright directing. PAUL was directed by Greg Mottola, of SUPERBAD etc.
To be honest, I would have preferred that this be another Pegg/Wright piece, but Pegg/Frost still work in enough of the British Humor to make me happy. They also make sure that this sci-fi movie has multiple references to all the great sci-fi movies and television shows, like E.T., the INDIANA JONES franchise, STAR WARS, the STAR TREK Gorn fight, and the X-FILES.
How nerdy is it? As an incredible nerd, I feel I can say that it was quite nerdy. I was wearing one of my Weird Al Yankovic t-shirts and planning to watch some classic STAR TREK with my son after the movie. I spent my few precious hours of Spring Break watching Eddie Izzard, THE SIMPSONS, THE DAILY SHOW, LABYRINTH, and MACBETH with Patrick Stewart with friends (friends who unanimously decided that the porter should be played by Simon Pegg). I'm hitting WONDERCON next weekend. I AM the audience for this movie!
Thus, imagine my pleasure at seeing the movie basically begin with Graeme and Clive at COMIC CON. Imagine my joy at catching all the nerdy references (even my joy at an ELO song from XANADU showing up in the film). Imagine my joy at getting to watch Pegg and Frost, along with Bateman and Tambor from ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, Jane Lynch, and the two strongest members of the current SNL cast, Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig. (There's another great cast member. I recognized her voice immediately, but since the majority of the audience seemed surprised to see her, I won't spoil it for you.)
Much of the comedy comes from someone learning to cuss, or, as Spock would put it, to use "colorful metaphors." Even though it's silly, it works.
What didn't work for me? Seth Rogan. You could have put basically anyone as the voice of Paul and I would have been a lot happier. Seth Rogan annoys me so much that even his voice annoys me. The fact that even when he's playing an alien (an alien whose body movements are mostly based on another actor doing an impression of Rogan since Rogan wasn't available), he's still a pot smoking "slacker" just reinforces how much Rogan doesn't so much act as play the same person every time. I'm tired of that person.
I would love to meet an alien. I had Mulder's "I Want to Believe" poster hanging in my house for years. However, if that alien were Seth Rogan, I'd walk away.
Also, as much as I love Jason Bateman, his part should really be played by David Duchovny. I couldn't stop picturing it. For many reasons, it would up the situational and allusional comedy quite a bit.
In addition to giving me tons of nerdy and anglophile thrills, the film gave me some things to ponder. As this is the first time the Pegg/Frost dynamic has moved across the pond in setting, there were bound to be some differences. There are a few jokes that Brits will get (about car parks, American accents, and bad American tea). But the change in milieu allows for an exploration of a few other distinctions between cultures.
When I was in London, one of the things people kept asking me was whether I owned a gun. (Other questions driven by stereotypes of Americans: did I drive an SUV, had I had a boob job, why did people vote for W twice?) In this film, the tables are turned on the Brits as a cop asks them, rather stunned, about the lack of guns in the UK.
Another difference that I appreciate about British culture is the acceptance of science. Britain doesn't have to contend with large portions of its population and its politicians not believing in science, questioning evolution, or bashing intellectuals. Thus, these transplanted British nerds encounter people they are unlikely to meet at home—anti-science, gun toting, fundamentalist young earthers (people who believe in the young earth theory believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old).
The American setting also allows the Brits to undertake a great American tradition—the road trip. Not all Americans realize what a uniquely American thing this is, but American literature is hugely influenced by this trope.
One difference is digging at me, though. Throughout the Pegg/Frost oeuvre, jokes are made about the bromance between them. Pegg and Frost's characters in England have to contend with comments about their closeness in homosocial terms, but American bromances must always both flirt with deny the possibility of homosexuality and gay sex. Thus, the Americans (and the aliens) in this film respond to the British friends in an American way—by making overt references to sodomy and by physcially threatening the men for appearing to be too close.
I've always found the relationship between Pegg and Frost's characters to be extremely sweet—they're always best friends—they always see each other through both the good and the bad. This American commentary on that kind of male relationship bothers me. I just don't think it's funny to be constantly insinuating that men who actually love each other must love each other physically.
That issue aside (and even Seth Rogan aside), I really enjoyed this movie. The year my brother was born, E.T. befriending a young boy enchanted me. While I wasn't enchanted by Paul in the same way, watching him befriend the man-boys was a pleasure.
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