16 February 2011

PAUL- Review

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost made their names along with Edgar Wright, working on Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. With Wright moving onto Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the final third of their "Blood and Ice Cream" trilogy still a while off, Pegg and Frost have written and starred in Paul, an inauspiciously named comedy of similar nerd credentials to their previous work, but with a much bigger budget.

They play Graeme and Clive, two nerds who trek across the Atlantic to the San Diego Comic Con and then go on a whistle-stop tour of America's extra-terrestrial hotspots. A government vehicle overturns in the middle of the desert, right in front of their RV, and the pair are introduced to an alien called Paul. Paul is immensely powerful and quite rude, and he's now a fugitive from the US government.

I don't mention the bigger budget lightly, but neither do I take it as a sign that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have sold out. Hell, Pegg has already starred in Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, Ice Age and Narnia sequels- if he was ever selling out, he'd have done it before Paul. I mention the budget because many have blamed it for the fact that this film isn't as much like their earlier collaborations with Wright. I would submit that it's not meant to be the same as those films.

The suggestion seems to be that behind closed doors, the bigger budget had some big faceless studio suits trying to divert the two from the formula that made their Transatlantic successes of the past. Blame the studio and the big budget for the shitty marketing, as the two stars have done themselves during their promotion of the film, but is it not true that the same people complaining that it's different would probably be calling it formulaic if it were another Shaun of the Dead?

The charge might be that it's not as funny, but Paul made me laugh quite a lot. Shaun of the Dead is one of my favourite films of all time, so I was never measuring against that, but if it's trying to be a big-budget cameo-laden caper along the lines of The Blues Brothers (just one of the many texts referenced in the usual maelstrom of cine-literacy that comes with these writers), then it works perfectly well.

There are certain elements that don't quite work. For instance, it's difficult to do a buddy comedy movie with three stars. We start out with Graeme and Clive, in the first quarter of an hour, but once Paul arrives, the two become interchangeable. One's human, one's an alien- that's two people altogether in that joke. Pegg and Frost are both great, and are probably so convincing as obsessive nerds because they kind of are obsessive nerds. That's no bad thing, I just wish they were in a situation that allowed their characters here to be more distinctive.

I also kind of disliked the rampant anti-religious bent. I'm definitely not a big fan of organised religion, and I was initially intrigued by the idea that a card-carrying t-shirt-wearing Creationist, played by Kristen Wiig, would be confronted with the incontrovertible proof of life on other planets. Then I saw how mean-spirited the script plays it. Darwin is cited a fair bit, but it's really closer to Dawkins, and the potential is stripped from an interesting character dynamic at the end of that scene, as if the film isn't really interested in it.

On the positive side though, I found that Paul is just a fun time to have at the cinema. Additionally, kudos must be given for the technical side of things. Director Greg Mottola, of Superbad and Adventureland fame, hasn't dealt with big special effects before, but manages remarkably well. The film's biggest special effect is its title character, Paul, who's entirely a motion-capture creation. Seth Rogen provides his voice, in a turn that's more enjoyable than his recent outing as the Green Hornet.

The Blues Brothers parallel amps up considerably when you look at the cast, pulling in as many big names of great American comedy as possible. Kristen Wiig, Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, Jeffrey Tambor, David Koechner, Joe Lo Truglio- and the list goes on. There's also an inspired nerd-cred cameo in the third act that you'll be very lucky to avoid hearing about before going in. It counts as a spoiler, pretty much, and yet this person's name is on the fucking poster- thanks a bunch, Universal, for your ever-shitty marketing.

Paul could be seen as a diminished return if you're holding it up against Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, but it's fundamentally intended as a different film to those two. It has the same affection for pop culture, and the same uncanny ability to embed that affection without turning into some kind of Dreamworks film, but it's still Pegg and Frost's stab at making a very different type of film. And despite its flaws, it's much more energetic, and frankly, a lot funnier than many films of that type. Ignore the terrible trailers, try not to notice the spoilers on the poster, and enjoy. 

Paul is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
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If you've seen Paul, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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