Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Review - 'Paul'

Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) are your textbook nerds. They have bad haircuts, lack social graces, only wear T-shirts with film and comic book motifs on them, and presumably hum with BO. They'd be fishes out of water anywhere, but when we first meet them they're thousands of miles from their homeland of Britain, about to embark on the road trip of a lifetime across the UFO hotspots of the USA. But, of course, things don't quite go according to plan, as not long after passing Area 51 they find themselves crossing paths with a bona fide grey alien... albeit one who smokes, speaks English, and answers to the name of Paul. From there on, it certainly remains the roadtrip of a lifetime, but with a greater sense of life-and-death urgency.

The tricky thing about Paul is that it's one of those movies that's nigh-on impossible to assess on its own terms. The obvious questions that immediately present themselves: how do the big screen (and hitherto small screen) double act of Pegg and Frost get on without Edgar Wright behind the camera? How does the writing partnership of Pegg and Frost compare with that of Pegg and Wright? How does it all fare under the direction of the conspicously un-British Greg Mottola? Do we class the resulting movie as American, or British, or what?

And, of course, the biggest question of all: is Paul as good as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz? Or, for that matter, Scott Pilgrim Versus The World?

The short answer is... no. Paul is almost certainly the weakest film to date from either the Mottola camp or the Pegg/Frost camp, assuming we don't count Run Fatboy Run (which I don't as, while Pegg starred and co-wrote it, it was not his original creation; he merely revised an existing script). It doesn't have that same assured touch of Shaun and Fuzz, with nowhere near as many laugh-out-loud moments, nor does it have the same chemistry and underlying heart that made Mottola's Superbad and Adventureland so special. By comparison with all the aforementioned it feels a tad bit haphazard, not so carefully prepared and finetuned; not the dazzling display of comedic expertise we might have expected.

But here's the good news... this team playing at less than their best is still head and shoulders above most other filmmakers working in comedy right now. Paul may not be a masterpiece, but it's still a damn good bit of sci-fi flavoured fun.

Obviously it's not eons away from Pegg and Frost's earlier collaborations. One of the great virtues of their work is that they have never been content to roll out the exact same characterisations every time. Tim and Mike, Shaun and Ed, Nicholas Angel and Danny Butterman: these are all very different double acts with distinct character traits. So it is with Graeme and Clive. For once Frost plays the somewhat more dominant role; it's usually him getting pissed off and shouting at Pegg, as opposed to the other way round as it has tended to be in the past. Pegg, meanwhile, plays surely his most timid character to date, as terrified by the local rednecks as he is by the opposite sex, notably in the shape of Kristin Wiig as the fundamentalist Christian they pick up along the way (whose faith takes the humour into somewhat more political hot topic territory than these guys have ventured before).

Perhaps the key difference between this and the other Pegg/Frost projects is that, ultimately, the film doesn't really revolve around them. They're just a couple of innocent bystanders who accidentally find themselves at the eye of the storm, with an alien in their rented RV. Yes, Paul is the title character for a reason. Not only is the story driven by him, but it's also when he comes into play that the film really comes to life.

As other reviews have noted, Paul starts off in a surprisingly understated fashion as we follow Clive and Graeme through San Diego Comicon and onto their road trip. It all feels a bit meandering and lifeless, until Paul shows up. His presence drives a wedge between the two lifelong friends. A carpe diem kinda guy, he nudges both of the repressed overgrown children toward uncharacteristic behaviour, which is where much of the comedy comes from. Subsequently, as the most confident member of the bunch he also winds up with most of the best lines. As I mentioned in my review of The Green Hornet, Seth Rogen seems to be something of a polarising figure in contemporary film comedy; a guy you either love or hate. (One can't help but wonder if they had this in mind when Paul digs through the fridge and says, "mmm, Marmite!") Even so, I suspect the absence of his actual physical presence may be of reassurance to those of the 'hate' camp. Rogen hasn't taken on so endearing a role since his breakthrough in Knocked Up, and his vocal work in conjunction with some really good CG adds up to a great character.

Indeed, when all is said and done Paul really isn't just a Pegg/Frost film at all; it's a real ensemble piece. There are almost as many scenes following the men in black on their trail, Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio. Bateman's smooth pro Agent Zoil (a name that pays off) leaves Hader and Lo Truglio's relative rookies Haggard and O'Reilly in the dark as to the specifics of the mission, and their gradual realisation as to just what is going on is, by the final act, perhaps even more vital to driving the narrative than anything Graeme and Clive get up to. Indeed, as the ensemble continues to swell right up to the final scenes (with one eleventh hour addition feeling particularly unnecessary - and no, I'm not referring to Sigourney Weaver), you almost forget the film is about them at all. By distancing us from the main protagonists this way, the movie does not allow anything like the same level of personal involvement commanded by Shaun, Fuzz and Superbad.
 
And in case you might question its relevance to KA-BOOMSKI! I have two things to say. One: it's got multiple car chases, shoot-outs and fight scenes, and at least a couple of big fuck-off explosions. Two: it's my bastard blog, I'll write up whatever I want.

No, it doesn't feel like an entry in the 'Blood & Ice Cream' trilogy, nor does it pack the same belly laugh and emotional sucker punch quota, but even so Paul is very entertaining, reasonably quotable (expect to hear a lot of "Three tits! Awesome!"), and sure to hold up well to repeat viewing.

Just a slice of fried silver, then.

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