By Justin Stewart
Dir. Greg Mottola, U.S., Universal Pictures
Paul is what happens when a movie sets out to have something for everyone and ends up with nothing for anyone. The film was written by and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and its most obvious appeal is to fans of their Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. But Edgar Wright, the director and co-writer of those “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy” entries, is not involved, and fans will notice it in the plot’s ungainliness and the lack of the curious relaxed quality in those previous send-ups. Since it’s about a cute, explicitly E.T.-like alien visitor, you might assume it’s for kids, but the alien Paul’s hard-R vulgarity is far bluer than safer animated wiseacres like Aladdin and Shrek’s Donkey. There’s enough of a counterbalancing, self-conscious surfeit of the stuff all adults crave—guns, cussing, atheism, Mork & Mindy references—to assure that this is no Rango, but it doesn’t have the conviction of its own crudity. Repeatedly resorting to sentimentality between the shootouts and gay jokes, Paul never seems sure which demographic to pander to.
The movie follows Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost), two unkempt but agreeable comic book artists and aficionados out of a Kevin Smith movie—the twist seems to be that they’re British. They are on holiday in the States for the annual Comic-Con International, where they geekily gush over their hero Adam Shadowchild (Jeffrey Tambor, funny as usual) and are mistaken for a gay couple for the first of several times. The wide-eyed friends are also using this American visit to tour noteworthy sites relating to UFO folklore, like Roswell and Area 51. Driving near the latter in their rented RV, they see a car flameout and crash in front of them. While the duo investigates, a small, talking, cigarette-smoking gray-green, Seth Rogen–voiced alien emerges from the shadows. Clive faints, while Graeme is sympathetic to Paul’s escape story and offers him transport to a rendezvous with his brethren. Along the way, they pick up a cycloptic fundamentalist, Ruth (Kristen Wiig), and the girl, now an aged woman (Blythe Danner), who discovered Paul years ago when his spacecraft crashed in her yard (killing her golden retriever, also named Paul). A federal agent (Jason Bateman) and two of his Keystone-bumbling underlings (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) are meanwhile pursuing the crew.
The aggressively self-aware screenplay plays cute with pop culture history. Paul’s decades spent in captivity at Area 51 were agreeable, until recently. He is shown in flashback giving E.T. ideas to a voice-cameoing Steven Spielberg (“oh, like a healing touch!”) At one point he brags “Agent Mulder was my idea!” It’s typical of Paul’s movies-equal-life conception that the government would have used a precious alien on Earth mostly as an idea farmer for Hollywood. Paul’s hackneyed appearance is addressed immediately: when a disbelieving Clive says that the large-headed, vertical almond-eyed little green man “looks too obvious,” Paul explains that that generic depiction was intentionally propagated on lunchboxes and t-shirts so that humans wouldn't have a “spaz attack” upon contact. Preempting another potential comparison, a character tells Paul, “I have dreamt about meeting you ever since I saw Mac and Me!” Having established this sarcastic omniscience of pop-sci-fi cinematic history fairly early on, it proceeds to do nothing fresh or memorable with it.
When it’s not rifling through references, Pauldivides its time between profanity, loud action, and a peculiar hostility toward religion. When Graeme and Clive meet her at an RV park, Wiig’s Ruth is wearing a shirt showing Jesus shooting Darwin in the face (“Evolve THIS!”). Chased by her shotgun-swinging father (John Carroll Lynch), they are forced to drive off with Ruth in the RV. She’s interrupted robotically reciting her creationist platitudes (“God made man in His own image—“) when a fed-up Paul appears from the bathroom. He places his hand on her head, and it reveals to her the “truth of forever” (shown to us in a sped-up image jumble), “curing” her of her simple beliefs. “There’s no heaven, no hell, no right or wrong,” she now realizes, and she dedicates herself to sin, which will mostly involve bungled attempts at cursing (“you bet your hairy love egg,” “bag of tits”), an interminably repeated gag. Paul also does the hand-to-head thing to Graeme and Clive. It knocks them down but they don't seem to learn much— assumedly they’re already atheists, like the real Pegg and Frost.
Of course, Christian propaganda has historically snuck its way into countless adolescent- and young adult-targeted movies, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with a movie endorsing atheism for a change, even when it’s (totally not—wink, wink) aimed at children via a rascally animated alien. But there is something unsettling about the way the “sobering truth” comes from Rogen’s vocal chords here, with Paul’s smug accompanying “now you know” smirk ’n’ shrug. As in Ricky Gervais’s like-minded, risible The Invention of Lying, there’s a cocksureness to its belief systems that kills any comic goodwill. More blasphemous than its God-denial might be its attempted alignment with Spielberg’s E.T. That alien could heal with his finger, and so can this one—he cures Ruth’s dead eye. But that the same Christlike touch also “cures” people of their religious faith is a rank perversion of Spielberg and Melissa Mathison’s creation. Paul can also reanimate creatures. After he revives a bird, he immediately eats it, reminding you of Paul’s true obnoxious, animal-eating spiritual predecessor, ALF.
Director Greg Mottola’s last film was the tender and funny Adventureland, but not one iota of its charm has made its way to Paul (though Wiig and Hader return). I think Pegg might’ve given it a go himself, if the movie's latter half weren’t so burdened with pointlessly elaborate car chases and deafening gun battles that no doubt required a professional’s superintendence. The imagery is clichéd—when fireworks are used to signal Paul’s space buddies at the end, I just knew there’d be a shot of them reflecting in his big, black alien eyes, and sure enough.
Perhaps Seth Rogen’s fan base is the real target audience for this film (it seems that Paul might only smoke to explain why he sounds like Rogen, who unappealingly barfs his words straight from the throat as always)—though I’m not convinced such a thing exists. Yet Rogen can’t be blamed for Paul’s defining image—the alien with pants dropped, waggling his bony green ass through the RV’s windshield at the camera, and you.