Monday, April 4, 2011
In Paul, Greg Motolla’s new high-concept alien comedy, Seth Rogen plays a wisecracking, pot-smoking visitor from the Andromeda galaxy. If that premise sounds terrible, then you’ll probably want to steer clear. Your enjoyment of this movie is almost entirely dependent on whether you like its star’s personality, though I can’t imagine any science-fiction fan not having at least a little bit of fun.
The film reunites Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the dynamic British duo from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. They play Graeme and Clive, two aging fanboys who embark on a tour of the U.S. after attending Comic Con. The script – co-written by Pegg and Frost, former roommates who grew up loving Star Wars – is an affectionate skewering of comic-book culture. There’s an air of self-parody to the Ewok T-shirts and geeky film references.
The adventure begins when Graeme and Clive meet Paul, an alien visitor who’s just escaped from the U.S. government after decades of captivity. The extraterrestrial has Rogen’s distinctive, laidback-stoner voice, but the big guy is never physically in the movie; this is a completely digital creation, like Gollum and Jar-Jar Binks. Actor Joe Lo Truglio studied tapes of Rogen and delivered the lines on set, and then Rogen recorded the dialogue in post-production. The effect is like seeing a Seth Rogen performance while never actually seeing Seth Rogen.
If Paul looks a little, uh, familiar – little green dude, big eyes, bald head – it’s because, as the alien explains, “the human race has been drip-fed images of my face on lunchboxes and T-shirts in case our species meet you don’t have a spaz attack.” This concept – that Paul has had a hand, Forrest Gump-style, in the shaping of post-war American history – gives the filmmakers a license to tickle our funny bone. Paul claims he came up with the idea for E.T. and Agent Mulder of The X-Files, and says the weed he gets from the Pentagon killed Dylan…
Graeme: Bob Dylan isn’t dead!
Paul: *knowing smile* Isn’t he?
I was surprised by the degree to which the filmmakers got me emotionally involved. Paul is not only funny, he’s endearing; his eyes make a cute little squishy sound when he blinks. Mottola, Pegg and Frost embrace Spielbergian sentimentality, and they mostly get away with it, even though David Arnold’s music lays it on a bit thick for my taste. There's a healthy dose of subversiveness to go along with the sentiment. This is the second British invasion comedy in recent years to take an explicitly pro-atheist stance. The other is The Invention of Lying, and if that film isn’t as well made as Paul, it’s equally astonishing and audacious.
Paul has the power to transfer all his knowledge of the universe just by reaching out and touching someone. This ability comes in handy when he meets Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a creationist who believes the Earth is 4,000 years old. (She wears a T-shirt depicting Jesus shooting Charles Darwin in the head.) Ruth has the most complex character arc in the movie, and Wiig makes the most of it; she brings genuine poignancy to the moment near the end of the film when Ruth tells Paul, “You didn’t frighten me, you freed me.”
Sci-fi fans will have a lot of fun picking out references to Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Back to the Future, and even those who don’t enjoy Rogen’s performance (for the record, I like the guy just fine) will have plenty to appreciate in the acting department. Mottola (The Daytrippers, Superbad, Adventureland) is one of our greatest directors of ensemble comedies, and he’s surrounded his digitally rendered main character with a cast of likeable performers – including Bill Hader, Jeffrey Tambor, Jane Lynch and Blythe Danner. You gotta love the moment when Danner’s character, seeing that her farm is being destroyed in a fire, cries out, “My weed!”