Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are two British geeks on a road trip of the US. Along the way, they pick up an unexpected hitchhiker - a small, foul-mouthed alien called Paul (Rogen), who enlists the duo to help him get him home. But the Government has other ideas, dispatching agents to pursue the trio...
Chemistry is not something that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost lack. From Spaced to their big-screen outings Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, the two real-life best buds have formed an onscreen partnership that you could scrape into a Petri dish and examine under a microscope. But that’s in front of the camera. Paul, the science-fiction road-movie comedy that has seen them write a script together for the first time, is a test of how well the two mesh behind it. Thankfully, the chemistry is still very much in evidence. In fact, Paul is a little slice of fried Au.
Of course, both Shaun and Fuzz were directed by Edgar Wright, who co-wrote with Pegg, so anyone expecting a carbon copy of Shaun or Fuzz, or even the final film in the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, will be disappointed. After all, Wright doesn’t direct - that honour falls to Greg Mottola, whose more classical sensibility gives the film a looser feel - while Pegg and Frost came up with the idea in 2003 while shooting Shaun Of The Dead; this is very much their baby. And, although there are obvious similarities and clear comparison points, Paul is a different beast, undeniably broader, more commercial and, interestingly, sweeter than its predecessors.
It takes a while for this to become apparent, though - or, if you will, for the fried gold to be mined. Unashamedly setting itself up in the opening minutes as a love letter to Spielberg, with a very Close Encounters-style sequence as a young girl witnesses the arrival of a spaceship on Earth in 1947, Paul then fast-forwards to the present day and an opening in which Pegg and Frost’s Graeme and Clive traipse around Comic-Con to their geeky hearts’ content, before hitting the open road for a cross-country trip through America’s alien hotspots.
It’s a sequence that exists for three reasons: it sets up Graeme and Clive — or “the writer Clive Gollings”, as he’s amusingly introduced — as best mates, overawed to be in the country they’d always dreamed of; it marks out the film’s occasionally obvious geek reference points (yes, Sigourney Weaver shows up at one point, and yes, someone quotes Aliens within seconds); and it’s Pegg and Frost’s way of paying back the geek crowd whose love of Shaun and Fuzz helped put them where they are today.
Sadly, however, it’s a fairly lacklustre and self-indulgent ten minutes or so that feels as though Pegg and Frost are treading on eggshells, wary of any gags that may be construed as anti-Comic-Con, and thus alienate their core audience. As a result, it’s not very amusing, with a hotel room encounter with a waiter who thinks Clive and Graeme are gay looking and feeling like the sort of sitcom Pegg and Frost once went out of their way not to make.
It also highlights one of the film’s chief flaws - unlike Ed and Shaun, or Danny Butterman and Nicholas Angel, who were butting heads throughout Shaun and Fuzz, there’s no conflict between Clive and Graeme from which comedy might be generated. There seems to have been a conscious decision to make them both nice, amiable blokes, rather than have Frost don his antagonistic buffoon costume again. You can see why they did it, and they’re still fun to hang with, but there’s a feeling that the film hasn’t quite kicked into gear.
Then, thank the Lord, along comes the title star, and Paul gets its groove on.
If you build your film around a CG character, you better make damn well sure that it works, or you’re dead in the water. Thankfully, from the second the Seth Rogen-voiced alien steps out from the dark into the light of Graeme and Clive’s rented RV, he convinces.
And if you name your film after a character, you better make damn well sure that character is memorable and transforms the film. Thankfully, Pegg and Frost deliver with Paul, who instantly injects the movie with an energy and humour that has previously been lacking. A singular conceit - he’s an alien with all the smarts in the known universe, yet who revels in home comforts like bagels, cigarettes, booze and uncomfortably tight shorts - he instantly introduces that much-needed tension between Pegg and Frost’s characters as he immediately bonds with Graeme and rubs Clive up the wrong way. Jealousy rears its ugly head.
In fact, in a larger echo of his ability to heal the sick or dying (all similarities to E. T. are explained away in a scene involving the film’s funniest cameo), Paul has a profound effect on every other character in the movie. Like Shaun and Fuzz, Paul is a tight, circular script with recurring lines and motifs that build and build before ultimately paying off - but unlike those films, Pegg and Frost here have been careful to give everyone an arc.
So, while Graeme and Clive learn to become more relaxed and live in the moment (a most un-British trait) as they are exposed to Paul, the supporting cast all get stuff to play with as well. Kristen Wiig, who plays Ruth, a one-eyed Creationist who Graeme falls in love with after kidnapping her (long story), has bundles of fun as she awakens from prim little ma’am to a cheeky minx taking great joy in unloading all manner of inventive cusses, while even the hapless goons chasing Paul - Bill Hader and Lo Truglio’s Feds, and Jason Bateman’s po-faced Man In Black, Zoil - are given more to do than point and shoot. Paul is the little drinking bird who sets them in motion.
But this is a comedy, not an exercise in screenwriting, so what a relief that Paul, the character, is funny as well. A blessed relief, in fact, after the Green Hornet farrago, as it reminds us that Seth Rogen still has the potential to make us laugh. Perhaps freed up from on-camera schtick that’s already on the verge of becoming well-worn, Rogen flies with his voice gig, lending Paul a heady mix of straight-talking sass, laidback slackerdom and matter-of-factness. Whether he’s puncturing Ruth’s belief system (“this God-bothering Cyclops!”), or offering his newfound friends a campfire joint packed with “the stuff that killed Dylan”, he’s joyous.
There will be those who tut at Paul’s, and the film’s, crudeness and profanity, but they’re not looking hard enough. Beneath the surface there’s a surprising warmth and heart to both Pauls that is enough to stifle any protests.
Paul, in short, changes everything, turning a meandering road-trip flick into a chase movie, as Bateman and his goons close in on their prey, that still has the time and the smarts to take interesting detours along the way. It’s also neatly directed by Mottola, who may not bring the personal attachment he felt with, say, Superbad or Adventureland, but who shows that he can handle this type of material in a classical, almost Spielbergian manner. And there’s the rub - it’s a sci-fi flick, but it’s also a heartfelt tribute to Spielberg, something that reaches its crescendo in a plate-spinning final showdown that is action-packed, funny and unexpectedly moving. Oh, and the last line is one for the ages. The master would be proud.
Broader and more accessible than either Shaun Of The Dead or Hot Fuzz, Paul is pure Pegg and Frost - clever, cheeky and very, very funny. You'll never look at E. T. in the same way again.