This year, passes to the geek Mecca known as Comic-Con sold out almost instantly. Movies based on geek-centric properties like superhero movies and sci-fi sequels are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. With so much money and attention already being paid, does geek culture need a tribute? I’m not sure, but Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Greg Mottola have made one anyway with their new film, Paul. The film is a giant road-trip movie that travels not between destinations, but from one geek reference to the next. The jokes are mostly clever and inventive, but as the film wears on into its third act, the references become predictable and unworthy of the comic talents of everyone involved. Additionally, despite the great performances of the entire cast, there’s hardly any character development and the only reason we care about the leads is due to the charisma and delivery of the actors. Paul may be a film for geeks by geeks, but geeks shouldn’t expect a film at the level of Pegg and Frost’s previous collaborations.
Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) are a couple of British geeks who have made their way to our shores to attend Comic-Con. After a brief montage of their attendance, the two head out on a road trip across America in a rented RV. That trip takes a slight detour when they encounter Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), a foul-mouthed, snarky extra-terrestrial who’s on the run from the government and needs their assistance to get to his mothership. The duo decide to help the runaway alien, but matters become more complicated as they’re pursued not only by a relentless government agent (Jason Bateman) and two dim-witted rookies (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio), but also by an angry Jesus freak (John Carroll Lynch) after Graeme and Clive slightly kidnap his daughter Ruth (Kristen Wiig).
When it comes to comedy, Paul keeps the laughs coming because the majority of the references are clever and unexpected. It’s only in the third act when the comedy begins to run dry and the material isn’t up to the level of the performers. I loved that the movie could casually throw in a Dreamcatcher joke just as easily as it could reference E.T., but it’s tougher to make jokes about classic films because most of the jokes have already been made. If Paul is a road-trip through movie references, then the third act is the cinematic equivalent of tourists who go to the Leaning Tower of Pisa and pretend they’re holding it up.
Thankfully, Pegg and Frost, who also co-wrote the material, are talented enough to almost always make the jokes work. Pegg’s comic delivery continues to be sublime. He has an understanding of how a joke would normally sound, dodges the expected, and comes up with a way to say even the simplest line and make it sound original, surprising, and hilarious. The off-screen friendship of Pegg and Frost also translates well to the relationship between Graeme and Clive. Even though the film does a poor job of giving the characters individual arcs or even much in the way of distinct personalities, I absolutely believed that these two guys would want to spend time with each other and road trip across the U.S.
The supporting cast is equally terrific. Wiig’s performance is absolutely charming and she finds a naive sweetness that makes her foul-mouthed character funny and lovable. Special credit goes to the animators behind Paul. When I first heard that Rogen would be the voice, I was slightly worried. He has such a distinct vocal style that I was concerned his voice work would overshadow the character and all I would see is the actor. However, the writing is strong enough that Paul ends up being the best-developed character in the film. Like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, you forget you’re watching a CGI creation because the animation, vocal performance, and writing are so strong.
Paul is a film that had me laughing throughout but leaving with mild disappointment. As a fan of Pegg and Frost and director Greg Mottola, I expected something masterful, but the film has a tendency to play it safe when it comes to the majority of its references. The jokes are still smart enough to work and the performances are wonderful, but there’s hardly any character development or clever plotting. But mostly, it’s a baffling love letter to an already well-loved culture. The geek haven’t inherited the Earth, but they’re definitely in the will. If Pegg and Frost hadn’t already established their geek cred with their previous work, Paul might feel like a naked cash grab at geek culture. It’s only the duo’s sincerity and honest love of all things geeky that gives Paul the heart it so badly needs.