Thursday, March 24, 2011

Paul: Sci-fi nerd delight

Paul (2011) • View trailer for Paul
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, occasional rude humor and brief drug use
By Derrick Bang

Genre geeks who flocked to 1999’s Galaxy Quest will get an equal kick out of Paul, and for many of the same reasons; this new comedy sends up the whole sci-fi nerd universe with equal mischief.

On top of which, we know we’re in for a good time when the British writing/acting team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost uncorks a fresh endeavor. And if this new effort isn’t quite as sharp as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, it’s still an amusing romp with enough satiric zingers — and affectionate pokes at sci-fi fandom — to satisfy its target audience.
Graeme (Simon Pegg, far left) and Clive (Nick Frost) have plenty to worry
about, once their extraterrestrial new friend takes the wheel of their RV, in
order to escape pursuit. Matters are further complicated by the fact that they've
sorta-kinda kidnapped Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a devout Christian whose close
encounter with this alien visitor proves, ah, life-changing.

Pegg and Frost star as Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings, two British genre geeks who’ve taken the vacation of their dreams in the United States, by starting at San Diego’s annual Comic-Con and then touring UFO-themed “hot spots” in the American heartland — Area 51, the “black mailbox” — in a rented RV.

They also possess a smattering of their own geek cred: Clive has written a sci-fi novel, Jelva, Alien Queen of the Varvak, which Graeme has illustrated. Most infamously, the book’s cover sports a sexy drawing of a green-skinned alien babe with three breasts ... an anatomical curiosity that prompts commentary from everybody who sees it.

Granted, it’s not hard to send up the whole Comic-Con experience, but Pegg and Frost nonetheless have a good time during the montage prologue that opens this film; they cover everything from the crazed costumes to the outrageously overpriced genre paraphernalia. Clive has his eye on an awe-inspiring, bushido-style sword, but he can’t surmount the four-figure price tag; naturally, the poor guy leaves the booth muttering dire imprecations in flawless Klingon.

The boys also queue up in order to get a signature from their idol, renowned sci-fi author Adam Shadowchild (Jeffrey Tambor, appropriately condescending). The hilarious running gag here is Shadowchild’s list of credits; later, on several occasions, as Graeme and Clive are forced to explain who the author is, they rattle off increasingly wacky lists of the guy’s published books.

Once on the road, our heroes turn camera-crazy at each significant UFO tourist site ... and, before long, wind up with a most unusual hitchhiker. That would be Paul, a bona-fide extra-terrestrial on the lam from “The Big Guy” back at Area 51, who wants to remove his brain in order to study some of this alien’s more, ah, unusual talents.

Paul has been a “guest” of the U.S. government since the 1940s, when he had a spaceship mishap. Ever since, he has been something of an informational and psychological resource for shadowy federal agents. This story’s central conceit is that Paul — a not entirely random name given this unusual visitor — has been responsible for helping our government “shape” the American perception of life on other worlds. Paul’s input has even influenced several generations of sci-fi writers and filmmakers; you’ll quickly recognize the voice of the famous director who, in a brief flashback, is heard seeking advice on a project.

And, needless to say, Paul’s “office” is amid the stacked contents of a huge warehouse that looks every inch like the final shot from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

This film is laden with such references: not so often that they detract from the story, but just frequently enough to prompt an elbow jab to your companion, when the next one pops up.

Paul, a goggle-eyed, grey/green critter who looks every inch the classic image of the “little man from space” — and that’s because we’ve been “prepared,” as a nation, to accept this image of an E.T. — is voiced by Seth Rogen. I have to say, based on recent evidence, that Rogen’s spoken roles are far better than his full-body acting assignments (The Green Hornet being fresh, and ghastly, proof of this). Rogen’s B.O.B. was by far the funniest element of 2009’s Monsters vs. Aliens, and he’s quite a hoot here, as the abrasive, chain-smoking Paul. His lines are delivered with perfectly timed, laid-back sass.

The cultural exchange, it turns out, has been a two-way street. While sharing his imagination and knowledge of the universe with us, Paul has absorbed many of our lesser qualities; the alien has become something of a frat boy out for a good time. But that’s an over-simplification; Paul also has his gentler, more compassionate side ... even if he indulges in the occasional rude gesture.

Graeme and Willy, predisposed to sympathize with the situation, agree to clandestinely take Paul to ... well, they’re not told. And before long, their efforts at remaining “low key” are blown so far out of proportion that they wind up leading a circus that includes a shadowy black-ops type (Jason Bateman, as Agent Zoil); a pair of bumbling apprentice feds (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio, as Haggard and O’Reilly); a vengeful Bible-thumper (John Carroll Lynch, as Moses Buggs); and two furious red-necks (David Koechner and Jesse Plemons) who keep parking their beloved truck in the wrong place.

Buggs is on their tail because of a further complication: the accidental “kidnapping” of his daughter, Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a devout Christian whose concept of God’s Earth gets a serious reality check when Paul reveals himself to her.

I should mention, right about now, that Christian viewers may take a dim view of how they’re portrayed in this saga, particularly when Ruth’s, ah, spiritual myopia is “cured” after a brain-expanding mind-meld with Paul. This close encounter leaves Ruth wanting to experience everything she has missed, from constant cursing and carefree fornication to senses-altering substances of any stripe.

The questionable taste aside, the cursing running gag — with every other word from Ruth’s mouth not fit to repeat in polite company — rapidly loses its minimal charm. Wiig, a Saturday Night Live alum whose big-screen career has been uneven at best, is stiff and clumsy throughout this film, as if she’s uncomfortable with the potty-mouthed dialogue her character keeps spouting. And since Wiig looks and sounds awkward with the line delivery, she never, ever sells Ruth as a credible part of this story.

Hader and Lo Truglio, on the other hand, are a Laurel and Hardy-style hoot: perfectly played fools. Lo Truglio’s unexpected face-to-face with Paul, in a comic book shop along the way, is laugh-out-loud uproarious.

Bateman is also spot-on as the crisply efficient Zoil (his name eventually fuels a groaning pun, but you’ll have to wait for it), and Lynch is all too credible as a roaring, wide-eyed religious zealot.

Pegg and Frost have their Mutt and Jeff teamwork down cold: Pegg the high-strung, rabbity guy willing to embrace the moment — any moment — and Frost the disheveled, mildly petulant voice of (only occasional) reason. They complement each other perfectly, and no surprise; they’ve worked together since the 1999 BBC-TV series Spaced (which, despite its title, is not a sci-fi concept). (Well ... not entirely, anyway.)

David Arnold’s lively soundtrack is a character in its own right, and of course the music also includes occasional genre quotes that’ll prompt more of those elbow nudges. Arnold also worked with Pegg and Frost on Hot Fuzz, and I hope the eventual soundtrack for Paul will be kinder to the composer; the CD for Hot Fuzz mostly ignored that film’s equally rich orchestral score in favor of a dozen or so pop songs.

Given the goofy good will this film builds while approaching its crazed finale, the abrupt shift in tone is a bit jarring: The larkish atmosphere is rather spoiled when characters start getting shot — and killed — for real. Normally, the director gets the blame for this, but Greg Mottola’s resume — which includes Superbad and the under-appreciated Adventureland — demonstrates a guy who understands the importance of consistency, whether dealing with an exaggerated sex farce or a quietly sensitive indie drama.

No, we can blame this unexpected mayhem on Pegg and Frost, who’re simply repeating the giggles-and-grue formula they exploited so well in their two previous films. But I’d argue that Paul is a gentler critter by nature, which makes the eleventh-hour violence here less welcome.

That aside, Paul is a hoot ’n’ a holler: a clever romp certain to be purchased, during DVD afterlife, by sci-fi geeks who’ll want to slow-mo through the entire film, to better savor every in-joke they missed on the big screen.

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