Most modern comedies end up being so stupid that it’s painful to watch the actors embarrass themselves on the big screen. That’s why it’s a pleasure to see comic team Simon Pegg and Nick Frost skewer the alien conspiracy genre in the consistently funny Paul.
Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are comic-book geeks who have flown from their home in England to San Diego for Comic- Con. What better way for two geeks to enjoy their first visit to the United States than renting an RV and going on a cross-country UFO road trip?
Just outside of Area 51, Graeme and Clive have a close encounter with a mysterious car that races ahead of them, then flips and rolls. They stop and are shocked to find Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), a smart-ass alien on the lam. Reluctantly, they give Paul a ride and are quickly taken by his good spirits, snarky comments and bonhomie.
But there are bad men on their trail. The mysterious Men In Black, led by the hilariously deadpan Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman), with his incompetent twit associates Haggard (Bill Hader) and O’Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio), and directed by the even more mysterious Big Guy (a delightfully geeky bit of surprise casting I won’t ruin here).
I love when films have references to other films, to famous scenes, music or even exterior locales famous from other movies. Paul does all of this, with many nods to Spielberg films, particularly Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In fact, there’s one scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark that’s just a brilliant juxtaposition, and when they end up at the Devil’s Tower for the climactic scene of the film, well, I was delighted.
Graeme’s love interest is Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), who starts out as a Bible-thumping fundamentalist wearing an “Evolve This!” t-shirt that depicts Jesus shooting Darwin, under the overprotective wing of her father Moses (John Carroll Lynch). The argument she has with Paul about intelligent design versus evolution is brilliant, and when she has to face that her beliefs don’t allow for non-human intelligent life, she transforms from meek fundamentalist to a comically free spirit.
We’ve come to expect weakness from the parody genre. Fortunately, that’s not Paul, and the script is well woven, with ideas started early in the film and punchlines delivered later, few loose threads left dangling, and an ending that both makes things clear and revels in its own self-referential snark. The performances are uniformly excellent, there’s a never-ending stream of pop culture references and an alien I’d like to hang out with.