Friday, March 25, 2011

'Paul' is a comic love letter to Spielberg

When reviewing “Paul,” the new alien comedy from British comic actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, it is perhaps easiest to talk about who this film is not for.

If you are easily offended by profane language, this movie is not for you. If you are an overly sensitive Christian, this movie is not for you. If you've never seen “ET” or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” this move is probably not for you. And, most importantly, if you've never proudly called yourself a geek, freak, dork or nerd, this movie is not for you.

“Paul” is about a couple of English comic book nerds (Pegg and Frost, who also wrote the film) who are visiting the United States to go to Comic-Con and visit locations of alien sightings. Along the way they encounter a foul-mouthed, but good-natured alien nicknamed Paul (voice of Seth Rogen).

The success of a film with an alien at the center depends on the believability of the alien. Whether the alien is a puppet like Yoda or ET or a computer-generated creation like Paul, if the alien looks fake the rest of the movie is cheapened. Paul, which was made using motion capture, the same technique used to create Gollum in “Lord of the Rings,” looks fantastic. He is seamlessly integrated into scenes and after a while you stop seeing him as a special effect.

Paul has been on Earth for 60 years and has very much assimilated our culture, specifically the slacker culture portrayed in such films as “Knocked Up” and “Superbad.” Realizing he is finally going to be killed and dissected by his captors, Paul makes a break for it. It is up to Pegg and Frost to help him catch a ride home.

The oddball trio picks up an Evangelical Christian RV rest stop attendant (Kristen Wiig). Paul helps to open her closed mind. In a funny running gag she embraces swearing, although she doesn't quite have the knack for it. Wiig, a reliably strong comic actor, gives a very funny performance that enlivens the film just as it was losing steam.

Pegg, Frost, Rogen and Wiig make a great comedy team and they play off each other nicely. There's an easy-going, silly charm to their scenes together. Even with a lot of crass humor, there's a sweetness throughout the film, especially in a plot development involving a character played by Blythe Danner.

Sadly, a strong supporting cast of talented comic actors is largely wasted. Jason Bateman and Bill Hader appear as G-Men and aren't really given much to do, although Bateman has a hilarious string of profanities that is almost poetic. Jane Lynch (“Glee”) has a cameo as a diner waitress and Sigourney Weaver is amusing as a government official, but it is basically stunt casting.

Fans of Pegg and Frost's previous collaborations, “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” may be disappointed, as this is a less sophisticated comic riff on a genre than those films. The humor in those film was more layered and the characters more complete. It was less parody and more homage.

“Paul” is meant as a love letter to Steven Spielberg. Pegg and Frost are content to merely reference other films in ways that are often genuinely funny, but the film doesn't go deeper than that first level kind of humor.

Pegg wrote the previous two films with Edgar Wright, who also directed them. His influence probably helped focus those other films. “Paul” director Greg Mottola (“Superbad,” “Adventureland”) has a looser style. The style fits the material well, which is goofier and more scatological than “Shaun of the Dead” or “Hot Fuzz.”

In many respects “Paul,” with its geek culture references, is closer in spirit to “Spaced,” the TV series that Pegg, Frost and Wright did together. This is a good, funny movie that could've been great, but the target demographic is going to enjoy it regardless because of an amicable cast and real affection for the genre.

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