March 20, 2011

Paul (03/20/2011)

Lettergrade: C-

Most of Paul is just sort of "okay." It picks up a little in the second half, but I'm honestly not all that happy that I spent 2 hours with it on a valuable day off, and I cannot recommend that you do the same. The fault is probably mine: I expected too much.

You see, the movie - a take off on the E.T. / Mac & Me / A.L.F. sub-genre where two comic book guys encounter a stoner alien - stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the neo Abbot & Costello pair who were also in two of my recent favorites: Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz. Pegg co-wrote those earlier movies with director Edgar Wright (who also made the wonderful Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World last year), but Paul was co-written with Frost instead, and Adventureland's Greg Mottola stepped in to direct.

The result is a movie that feels like a more foul-mouthed companion to Galaxy Quest or The Coneheads in that it's pleasantly amusing, and even has a handful of decent scenes, but ultimately feels a little too banal and toothless for my taste. It's not as intense or as extreme as Shaun or Fuzz on a visual level, and although the love of pop-culture and referencing other movies is in there, the joy with which the earlier film made those references is not. I think both this movie and Galaxy are reluctant to really take the gloves off when depicting the comic-book crowd, knowing full well that it's the same demographic that tends to buy most of the tickets. Oh if the filmmakers had only used Triumph The Insult Comic Dog's epic encounter with Star Wars fans camping out to see Attack Of The Clones in 2002 as inspiration:

But you know, content aside, a big part of my so-so reaction to the movie is Paul himself. He's voiced by Seth Rogen, which I don't necessarily have a problem with, but the character he plays, like most of his other characters, doesn't seem to be all that different from the man himself. He smokes pot, makes lewd comments, and is generally a lovable slob. But the thing is that other than drug use, he's also not that all that different from A.L.F. (although I might actually argue that A.L.F. was funnier and more socially relevant). Maybe the few seconds of American Dad I've seen over the years have desensitized me to seeing aliens who like to sleep-in, watch bad TV, and eat junk food, but during a couple scenes in Paul I got the idea that the fact he was smoking or drinking a beer or something was intended to get some laughs, and it just wasn't. The image is so kinda familiar now that you pretty much expect it.

I don't begrudge the use of an all CG creation as one of the leads, but I also think that the makers of the film fell into the Jar Jar Binks trap of allowing Paul himself to outshine his live-action co-stars for too much of the film. The warning signs are there even in the trailer where you can clearly see the CG alien make big, grandiose facial expressions and movements while the actual people who were there on the set just look on blankly. Watch the second Pirates Of The Caribbean movie again and marvel at how often many of the CG characters simply stand and listen, then react appropriately... much like real actors usually do when performing in other movies. There's something Davy Jones understands that no other CG actor I've seen does.

Indeed, synthespians like Paul are so much more effective when they don't articulate all that well, or better yet, even look a little crappy. Lousy effects certainly didn't hurt 1989's Mac & Me, a piss-poor E.T. knock-off in which the McDonald's and Coke product placement is off the fucking charts, making for a movie that in many ways is funnier and far more memorable than this one.

Pegg and Frost seem to understand the joy that comes from reveling in the schlockiness sci-fi movies of yesteryear (Frost's character even brings up Mac & Me at one point), but weirdly they're doing it in a movie that's glossy and well-produced and which tries hard for genuine tenderness at multiple points. I have to blame the director for everything not quite working in harmony the way that it should.

I really liked Mottola's previous two movies, but something about his laid-back, quasi sentimental approach seems completely wrong for this one. Superbad and especially Adventureland revolve around young men who are at transition points in their lives, and I walked away from both really impressed that he was able to be very funny while still saying something very intangible and honest about the way in which guys interact with and, yes, even love eachother. In a perfectly hetero way, I mean. Not that there's anything wrong with... well, you know.

The Pegg and Frost characters in Paul are essentially sci-fi geek children who have reached their 40s without really advancing much. That's fine, but the movie makes an attempt at illustrating their life-long friendship and affection for eachother that feels out of place in the movie, as if Mottola looking for soul and depth where he really shouldn't be. Could Paul's key problem be that it tries too hard to be a movie that's about something other than just having a fun adventure?

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