Back in 2004, I spent a strange day at Ealing Studios in west London, watching Simon Pegg and Nick Frost playing whack-a-zombie with snooker cues. If you’ve seen the zombie comedy film Shaun of the Dead, you may remember the scene. Our heroes are holed up in an zombie-sieged pub and the portly landlord goes all Romero, while Freddie Mercury wails “Don’t stop me now!” from a jukebox. It was strange enough in the film, but believe me, it was stranger to see take after take of grown men dancing round the scowling zombie maypole-fashion, in a fake pub interior on a studio set, while the zombie extras pressed patiently on the frosted windows. As I remember, things went a bit wrong on one round, and one of the thespians received a hard wooden blow to the goolies. There’s a bit of advice that the zombie-fighting guides forget; if you’re engaged in a combined attack on the walking dead, then have a care for your pal’s privates.
After that experience, I’ve followed the fortune of Pegg and his friends with personal interest. The triumvirate of Pegg, Frost and director Edgar Wright broke up following Shaun’s successor, Hot Fuzz; Pegg became part of the Star Trek-verse as James Doohan’s reincarnation, while Wright wowed fans but not bean-counters with last year’s Scott Pilgrim. (And let’s not forget Pegg’s role in Garth Ennis’s ball-busting, superman-killing comic The Boys – he was the physical model for the “Wee Hughie” character, which means that every time I see Pegg on screen now, I feel the urge to shout, “You’ve got blood in your beard!”) But now Pegg and Frost, best buddies and bromance double-act, have reteamed on Paul, an alien conspiracy-cum-road movie directed by Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland).
Like other double-acts, Pegg and Frost are essentially playing themselves. Actually, it’s a shame the film didn’t take that literally. The opening scene is at the San Diego Comic-Con, where Pegg and Frost are introduced as rumpled, starry-eyed fanboys, whereas it would have been more fun to see them as Pegg and Frost, explaining to zombie cosplayers why they never made Shaun of the Dead 2. The rest of Paul is already such an in-joke that an extra “meta” detail would have made little difference.
After the San Diego opening, Pegg and Frost continue their geeky pilgrimage with a camper-van tour of Area 51, and it’s here, in Nevada’s dark deserts, that they find Paul. Paul is – and we’re guessing that you’ve already seen the poster or the trailer – a CGI alien and a classic “Grey,” with the foetal head, the big eyes and sallow complexion, voiced with deliberate incongruity by Seth Rogen. Natually, he’s on the run from Men in Black, led by an irate Jason Bateman and a Star Cameo Mastermind. Equally naturally, Paul invites himself aboard our gormless duo’s van and the fun begins. At least in principle.
I came in expecting to like Paul, and judging by the reaction of the preview audience, many of them did. I’m afraid, though, that I found it only mildly amusing, with a high concept that wears thin very quickly. One of my main beefs is there’s very little mystery about Paul – he’s emphatically an everyday guy who’s good to hang out with, who just happens to be an alien. It’s an approach reminiscent of the cartoon sitcom Family Guy, where a dog (Brian) or a scythe-carrying Death are everyday people (the spinoff American Dad actually has an alien among the regulars). In Paul, it’s funny for a short while, but then the point’s made and the film flattens.
Moreover, the humans could do with fresher material. The bromance between Pegg and Frost, handled sweetly and lightly in Shaun, is thuddingly overstated here. Kirsten Wiig is on board as a love-interest creationist whose role is to be patronised in Star Trek style; once Paul mind-melds and saves her from her god-bothering ways, her main interests are getting high, getting laid, and learning how to cuss. Indeed, foul language is used throughout Paul as a joke with no punchline, the coarseness substituting for wit (and I say that as a fan of The Boys). Actually, it seems funny that Wiig’s character wasn’t merged during script development with another woman who appears in the later scenes, whose arc is hackneyed but far sweeter.
As the Comic-Con opening signals, Paul has a great deal of fannish backslapping (it’ll please the chaps at Aint it Cool News), with hats being doffed to favourite science-fiction landmarks, Spielberg’s especially. However, I missed the mystery of the retro ‘50s alien-invader classics, evoked only briefly in a prologue involving one of those lonely wooden houses on the Nevada plains. Yes, there are celebrity cameos, and of course there are good gags (the Bob Dylan line is a keeper, and Paul’s bit with the bird). However, I kept having the annoying feeling that I’d got the point but somehow missed the funny bit.
(c) 2018 Rebellion A/S. Reprinted with permission.