Thursday, March 24, 2011

Movie Review: "Paul" by David Pretty

Greetings, Proponents of Projected Portraiture! 

Okay, first off, let's get this out of the way right now.  I have a confession.  I have a bit of a man-crush on Simon Pegg:

Okay, well, maybe that's wasn't the best photo to support my claim.  But in every interview and role I've seen my boy in, he just seems like the kind of piker that would fit well into my own eclectic circle of friends. 

Ever since  Shaun of the Dead became one of my favorite films of all time, I've followed this dude's career closely.  I'm particularly keen on the projects he co-writes with Edgar Wright.  Although I took a lot of heat (fuck you very much, Mark and Brian) for liking Hot Fuzz, I really dug that film's take on the typical Hollywood buddy cop blockbuster by way of Stratford-Upon-Avon.  Admittedly, although I enjoyed it, it wasn't nearly as lean and mean as Shaun was.   

But now the dynamic writing duo have a new project called Paul.  Here's the trailer just to whet yer slavering appetites: 

So, needless to say, given the track record of human/alien buddy comedies (Mac and Me, Alien Nation, Double Team...up yours, Dennis Rodman certainly does qualify as an alien) I didn't hold out a lot of hope for Paul.  But, hey, *SURPRISE!*...I liked it!

The film earns early brownie points with me as it shows Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) as they stumble, slack-jawed around the spectacle that only San Diego's nerd mecca Comic-Con could possible provide.  After the festivities they intend to rent an RV and tour all across the south-western United States looking for famous U.F.O. hotspots.  After a run-in with a couple of rejects from Deliverence,  the boys witness a terrible car accident and pull off the road to help.  It's here that they meet the titular runaway alien Paul, who, as it turns out, is in desperate need of an assist.

After the initial shock of learning that life exists beyond the stars (and it wears cargo shorts), Graeme and Clive agree to help our little interstellar fugitive.  Along the way they meet a cyclopean love interest for Graeme in the form of RV park attendant Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig).  She's a devout evangelical creationist and needless to say, her blind (pun!) faith is undermined when she meets Paul and discovers that there's more to the heavens then what her fundamentalist father (John Carroll Lynch) has told her.

Unbeknownst to our protagonists, powerful (and hopelessly inept) forces are aligning against them.  Paul's escape has raised the ire of a shadowy government agency, led my a mysterious, unseen dragon lady who barks order out to her field agents.  Chief amongst them is Jason Bateman as the unfortunately named Lorenzo Zoil (try saying it three times real quick).  As someone who will always see Bateman as Ricky Schroeder's l'il pal on Silver Spoons, it's hard for me to see him playing a ruthless bad-ass, but he actually acquits himself quite well here.  Especially so when juxtaposed against two local agents he recruits which include the dorky, bumbling O'Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio) and the relentlessly over-dramatic Haggard (played by the always-funny Bill Hader).

During their flight from the feds, more is revealed about Paul.  He crashed landed on our big blue marble and was promptly spirited away to a secret government think tank.  Over the past sixty years he's been disclosing the collective knowledge of  his people, not the mention serving as an unlikely muse to both Steven Spielberg and Chris Carter.  Needless to say, Paul had taken to human culture quite readily, so now he's just as irreverent, abrasive and matter-of-fact as the rest of us.

Special alien powers?  Paul's got 'em.  He can cloak himself Predator-style for as long as he can hold his breath, heal physical trauma and mentally transfer his collective experiences to others.  Of course, none of these things are never used as convenient script contrivances.  Naaaaaaah!

We soon learn that once Paul divulged all of his trade secrets, he suddenly became a tempting a subject for surgical tinkering.  With aid from an insider at Area 51, Paul escapes and manages to contact his alien brethren to swing by and pick him up at a certain traditional alien landing pad in Wyoming.  Although the classics never die, part of me can't help but think that he should have gone for a less obvious spot, like maybe a Denny's in Sheboygan.
Director Greg Mattola, who's previous films Adventureland I liked and Superbad I positively loved, really paces the film quite well.  It's a surprisingly even picture, striking a good balance between yuks, quiet moments of character development, well-coordinated action scenes and CGI spectacle.  As soon as the film starts playing around with conventions, however, it really finds it pedigree.  In one memorable example, Graeme and Clive are terrified by the threat of a potential probing, so Paul can't help but stoke their fears a little with some hot bagel hole action.      

Simon Pegg is a master at portraying clueless astonishment.  He essentially playing himself here but, as the old adage goes, if it ain't broke, don't improvise it.  He does turn in more than his fair share of inspired line readings that had me cracking up.  Nick Frost is earnest and self-affacing as Clive.  Unlike his character in Shaun, here he's playing a bloke who is considerably more sensitive and it's fun to watch his confidence build from fragile to forceful.  It makes the built-up ninja sword gag at the end pay off so well that I nearly laughed myself into a hernia.

Speaking of, if there's still anyone out there that doesn't think that Kristen Wiig isn't the funniest thing to happen to SNL in years?  When Paul transfers his collective knowledge to her, she instantly goes from myopic Jesus Camp alumni to eyes wide open verbal hedonist.  Her first, tentative Tourette's-style swearing outbursts usually resulted in tears spontaneously shooting out of my eyes.  I may have to see this again if only because I missed a few gags during paroxysms of hysteria.

Paul himself is a completely believable creation, kinda like an extraterrestrial Gollum with considerably better people skills.  Technically he's flawless and occasionally you may be distracted during close-ups as you notice the opacity of his skin or how his cool protective inner eyelids work.  He's voiced with pitch-perfect wryness by Seth Rogan.  What I love about Paul is just how unassuming he is.  Like Graeme, Clive and Ruth he's just another dude who so happens to be from another planet.

Providing the screenwriters with a convenient excuse for complications, Paul visits Tara (Blythe Danner), who's dog he inadvertently squished when his spaceship crashed landed back in 1947.  Of course that little girl is now an older woman, and someone who's suffered a lifetime of ridicule for insisting that she rescued an alien from a flaming pile of wreckage.  When Paul shows up she just seems relieved to be vindicated and that she isn't barking mad after all.  Her reaction is a bit far fetched, especially when the agents show up, chaos ensues and her house blows up like an outhouse packed with C4 ("My weed!" she cries as the RV tears off). 
The script tries to pull the wool over our eyes on a few similar occasions.  For example, at one point we're asked to ignore how four distinct groups of people (the main characters, the FBI agents, the two rednecks and Ruth's crusading father) all managed to converge on the same spot all at once. 

But really, how can I possibly nitpick logic in a film about a laconic, trash talking, chain-smoking alien being smuggled back to his people by two British comic book nerds, a foul-mouthed lapsed Catholic and a stoner granny?  I hear you loud and clear: shut the fuck up and enjoy the belly laughs.

And they are plentiful.  By the time the script throws a curve ball by playing a shell game with some of the character's loyalties and the Big Bad is revealed (P.S. it's worth the wait), I was totally on board this faster- then-light craft.  Yes, you know that eventually Paul is going to have to use his powers to risk his own life and save another just as likely as you know that roller coaster car your in will start to plummet.  But that's part of the fun.   

I laughed my ass off during this flick.  It's filled with cheeky sci-fi one liners ("Get away from her, you bitch!") and funny visual gags (apparently Paul stayed at the Casa Del Lost Ark of the Covenant at one point).  The humor isn't broad, gross or cheap.  It comes organically from what we learn about the characters and what nutty situations they find themselves in.

Put your brain on idle, go and prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

out of  five.   Tilt: up.

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