Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Squalor: Paul

I usually love when Simon Pegg and Nick Frost join forces.  The previous entries in their collaborations (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, and UK television series Spaced) have been smartly executed, surprisingly sophisticated genre send-ups loaded with all the right pop cultural references and never skimping on comedic flair.  I'd forgotten, however, that that duo is a trio.  This time, director/writer Edgar Wright has been subbed out for Superbad director Greg Mottola.  I'm sorry to tell you this, but apparently, without Edgar Wright, the duo falls pretty flat.  Paul is just alright.  Which, by the standards in place, means it's something of a miserable failure. There are just too many elements, too many co-stars, too many sophomoric moments that would be more at place in a slapstick film aimed at 13-year olds.  In fact, in many ways, Paul comes dangerously close to a sort of science fiction variation on the live action/CGI  blending Alvin and the Chipmunks-type kiddie flick. It's Alvin if the Chipmunks dropped the f-bomb quite a bit, smoked some weed, and made constant dick jokes.  So: in some ways, it's an R-rated comedy that really would be best enjoyed by someone who doesn't enjoy Hannah Montana ironically. A far cry from Hot Fuzz, where cartoonish action antics were appropriated in a manner that kept them dark and quite adult.    
The premise of Paul is a stretch littered with pop cultural allusions and occasionally clever moments.  Pegg and Frost star as Graeme and Clive, a set of British comic book geeks who follow their stateside visit to San Diego's Comic Con with a roadtrip through the paranormal sites of Southwestern America.  Along the way, they pick up Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an smart mouthed alien on the lam from government agents who needs their help to finalize plans for his grand escape back to his home planet.  Paul's been stuck here for decades, and his backstory allows for some of the film's slickest moments.  We're given some great reasoning for Paul's generic appearance, as well as the impact he's had on pop sci-fi.  There's a small gem of a scene, for instance, in which Paul, in his confines at Area 51, is shown on the phone serving as a creative consultant for Steven Spielberg during the production of E.T..  Another satisfying moment has Paul taking down a Jesus Freak with his extensive knowledge of the universe.  These little pieces, and Paul himself, work well enough.  Rogen's voice is a decent match for our laid back extraterrestrial hero.  He's an alien more American than his hosts, and the irony isn't lost on the audience.  The problem, however, and the places where the film really just falls flat, lies in that interaction between CGI and live action.    
There are a surplus of moments where Paul speaks or does some fancy alien trick, and we're shown these reactionary expressions by the actors that just seem completely after the fact.  Paul is plagued by this disconnect.  Pegg and Frost aren't the only ones to blame; Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, and Jason Bateman are all granted these moments of inescapable falsehood.  As a result, the actors are just plain awkward, frequently given to overacting which (no matter how good the CGI is) contributes to this constant inability to suspend disbelief.  Paul just never really feels natural.  From the jokes, to the relationships, to the pacing; it can't quite seem to find its stride.  It's always forced, always an effort, and thus exhausting.  There's so much potential here, and a fair amount of it is squandered in favor of character likability, faux-development, and forward motion.  It may be a road movie, but I really wished it would just slow the hell down and fix up the half-baked connections between its characters.  Paul's a decent distraction if you're searching for a no-brainer, but marks a sharp decline in the Pegg/Frost collaborative send-ups.  Honestly: for sci-fi comedies: try Galaxy Quest.

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