Pop culture nostalgia products can be insufferable and lazy, often barely concealed cash-ins on the work of greater artists. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have made a career out of it since their seminal work with Edgar Wright on Spaced, and have never stepped wrong in this regard. Whether recalling zombie/horror films or paying homage to dumbass action films, their affection is genuine, and the tributes effortlessly charming. These are not careless high-fives, but a recognition of the shared experiences that form our culture. Paul reflects this with its cinematic and cultural examples from science fiction, but most of all honoring the engine driving pop culture itself – the geeks and nerds amongst us. And that includes us.
Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are two such geeks who have journeyed from the UK to genuflect at the nerd’s equivalent of Lourdes – Comic-Con. Everyone is dressed as an ewok or orc, the girls are all Leia, and everyone is free to obsess about the minutiae that encompass galaxies full of science fiction worlds. The two leads capture the wide-eyed wonder of true believers, probably because they are who they portray. Onward they go, cleansed in the healing waters (and empowered by meeting their favorite sci-fi writer played by a droll Jeffrey Tambour), toward various sites frequented by UFO enthusiasts. Area 51 and other such meccas are wrapped up with important locales, characters, and dialogue from Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark (with a hilarious cameo by Spielberg), Aliens, and so forth. None of this is taken seriously, except for the actors’ love for the material, which is serious enough to be considered religion. Graeme and Clive happen upon Paul, a CGI alien voiced by Seth Rogen with Poochie characteristics that are kept tolerable by dry humor and the charisma of the two leads. Paul has been here for decades, advising the government and certain influential film directors, and the time had come for his escape. He is on the run, hunted by taciturn agent Zoil and his evil boss who is planning to dissect Paul for research. Assisting Zoil in the most inept possible way are two FBI agents seconded to this secret group, the surprisingly funny Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio. Frost and Pegg (who co-wrote the film) are not stingy with the good lines, so everyone comes off well.
The riffing is hung on a road movie / on the run movie of sorts, and fortunately the pace is kept brisk. The few stops involve taking pot shots at a bible-thumping fanatic who is converted to sanity by a mind-meld; this bit has been criticized as unnecessary, which is true in that nothing about a road movie is ever really necessary except a destination. This did not bother me, since any film willing to be unfair about portraying the illogical nature of religion is willing to alienate a portion of its audience. That approach is leagues better than attempting to mollify everyone and playing it safe with a sanitized product. Paul is stronger for it, and religious fanatics tend not to enjoy science fiction anyway from lacking a sense of humor. The jokes fly thick and fast, and fortunately the film spends very little time ensuring that everyone gets the reference. When our intrepid travelers enter a hick bar where a country band is playing the theme of the Mos Eisley cantina, it was all I could do to stop giggling like a retard.
Eventually things turn a bit violent, and like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Paul walks a fine line between comedy and action like a virtuoso. The light tone keeps it together, and even an incinerated body becomes a punchline. That takes some talent to work and not leave the audience behind. Paul is a solid and frequently hilarious film, but it is a loving work played in adoration to those familiar scenes and sounds that were as important to our formative years as any piece of wisdom imparted by our parents. Though my father would likely be chagrined that Boba Fett takes up as much space in my cortex as the advice about what sensory organs are disabled by pellet rifles, I am sure he understands. After all, Forbidden Planet and Day of the Triffids were his surrogate parents. We all had them, even religious fanatics. Though I suspect Obi Wan Kenobi is a better one than Old Testament God.