Paul: The Art of Not Selling Out
Good news comedy nerds (and just nerds): Paul is funny! Don’t be fooled by the marketing campaign and weak trailers; this is not simply a buddy comedy with wacky CGI’d aliens and weed jokes. It’s a Simon Pegg and Nick Frost movie through and through. Like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Pegg and Frost co-wrote a script that embraces, not mocks, the genre film.
Parody movies rarely work, and thanks to the sometimes alarming rate in which they’re churned out (Scary Movie, Epic Movie, Date Movie, etc.), quality seems to suffer. But there are a few very noteworth exceptions. Christopher Guest has mastered the mockumentary, and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have taken on horror films and gun-weilding action movies. After waiting patiently for four long years, the new masters of Parody have returned, this time taking on Science Fiction. What Shaun did for horror, and Hot Fuzz did for action films, Paul accomplishes for the sci-fi genre. The result is a funny twist on very popular movies like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which is what Pegg and Frost do best. But be careful; if you go in expecting another Shaun of the Dead, you may be disappointed.
Paul centers around two best friends, Clive and Graeme, who are the quintessential comic book nerds. After finally going to their first Comic-Con, the hapless British duo embark on an RV road trip to visit the most famous UFO sites in America. Almost immediately, they are nearly killed in an accident cause by Paul the alien (Seth Rogen). They learn he’s on the run from shady government officials (Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) and resolve to help him get back home. Along the way, they pick up Ruth Buggs (played by the always funny Kristen Wiig), a woman who was raised by a bible thumping father and is thrilled to learn there is no heaven or hell and can therefore “swear and fornicate” freely.
For die hard Pegg/Frost fans like myself, you can’t compare Paul to the genius of their past two films. Like a crazed Martin Scorsese fan watching Shutter Island, or watching The Godfather III ten years after obsessively quoting the first two films (like I did), you have to remember that not everyone can always live up to the standards that they’ve set. That isn’t to say that Paul isn’t funny, but as it’s their biggest “studio film” to date, I would say that it’s clear they were going for a broader audience than with their past two films. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different — like Michel Gondry directing The Green Hornet. Was it one of the better Gondry films? Absolutely not. Was it a more than acceptable big budget super hero movie? You bet.
It’s easy to judge the ones we love, but don’t forget that while Shaun has certainly become a cult classic (and my favorite movie of all time) it only grossed $13.4 million. A far cry from, say, Grown Ups, which made over $162 million. Oftentimes fans forget that the movie business is just that, a business. And while it’s amazing when writers and directors are given free reign to do whatever they want, sometimes studios just want the bigger audience. True that in a perfect world, artists shouldn’t have to sacrifice quality or sell out to make a more traditional big budget film. Fortunately, Pegg and Frost didn’t seem really change their successful formula. The concept is the same and the writing is solid. Paul is every bit as irreverent and odd as their previous films. Just with more special effect, fewer British jokes and, unfortunately, without Edgar Wright.
Greg Mottola is a great director. I loved Superbad and Adventureland. And he does a good job with Paul, especially with casting choices. The cast list reads like a who’s who of comedy today: Seth Rogen, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Joe Lo Truglio, Janey Lynch, David Koechner, Jeffrey Tambor and Jason Bateman. But Paul just wasn’t the same as the last two films Pegg and Frost have done, and you can tell a big part of the reason is the lack of Edgar Wright. What makes Shaun hilarious isn’t the dialogue, or the characters, it’s the fact that Pegg, Frost and Wright made a really good horror movie, with really funny parts in it. It’s the perfect blend of comedy and horror. The overly dramatic music every time a door opens or someone peers out a window, the over-the-top tuxedo one of the zombies is wearing. It’s this loving admiration that they seem to have for the genre that they’re spoofing that makes the films so damn good. Same goes for Hot Fuzz. Would it have been as funny without all of the flash cuts and “getting dressed for work” montages that it had? Or the insane music? Or the over the top weaponry? Edgar Wright as a director encapsulates the visual style of the movies he’s trying to make, and that’s what makes them classics. Unfortunately, it’s missing from Paul. The dialogue is reminiscent of other science fiction family films, but the visuals are all off. It looks too much like Mottola’s other films and not enough like the school of films it’s trying to remind us of. This could have been a conscious choice of Mottola, but it left me really missing Edgar Wright’s style.
Paul is a good movie, one that I’ll most likely buy on DVD and will get funnier each time I watch it. Is it the best comedy of the year? I hope not, as I have high expectations for movies like The Hangover Part II and Your Highness. But is it the funnies comedy SO FAR this year? After everything I saw in January and February, I can say yes with certainty. I can also say that I can’t wait to see what Simon Pegg and Nick Frost do next.