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Non-Review Review: Paul

Paul is a charming little film. It’s not the most consistently hilarious comedy of the year, and it occasionally gets a little bit too hung up on a particular joke, but it does have a few chuckles and an affable quality that allows it go down easy. There’s a genuine sense of affection in the film, following two British nerds and the eponymous alien escapee on a road trip across America, but there’s also enough of a bite the film never wallows too much in sentimentality. It’s hard to find a single quality that Paul excels in, but it has a broad enough mesh of qualities that it makes for a pleasant enough viewing experience.

Ap-paul-ling behaviour...

In hindsight, it seems like Paul was simultaneously positioned very well and very poorly. It was positioned poorly because most of the stuff that Paul does so well would be covered even better by the other major releases of the year. While Rogan breathes life into the CGI alien, creating a credible computer-generated lead, there’s no way to argue that Andy Serkis didn’t do a much better job in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. While the movie affectionately homages Spielberg (to the point where the director himself recorded an audio cameo), the same ground was covered more effectively by Super 8.

Even the movie’s strongest hook, the “fumbling British men stumbling through the Southern United States” bit, evokes a 2009 Top Gear special that captured the culture clash perfectly. Indeed, I was considering whether the portrayal of the cultural misunderstandings encountered by the characters might be described as “stereotypical”, but they don’t really seem too far off the difficulties confronted by Richard Hammond. “This is like Deliverance!”the pair declare at one point, driving through the night, terrified at the notion they may have provoked a local resident.

"Special" agents...

And yet, there’s something about Paul that feels like it was perfectly timed. There’s no way that a major studio would give a film like this so large a budget at the moment. Indeed, had the movie been proposed any later, it’s highly likely it never would have been made. While it isn’t necessarily a brilliant film (though I think it’s solidly entertaining), there’s no denying that it feels relatively unique in concept and execution. None of the movie’s elements are new, but I appreciate the bold way they were thrown together.

In fact, I will concede that I admire the movie’s willingness to tackle the issue of Christian fundamentalism. It’s rare that you see a major blockbuster dealing with anything that could possibly be construed as political, and I think that it took some element of courage and creative integrity to include scenes that deal with the issue of evolution and creationism, even if it is in a comedic fashion. There’s a brilliant moment where Graeme tries to make sense of Ruth’s shirt, almost perfectly articulating the paradox of such militant religious belief. “Why would Jesus shoot Charles Darwin?”he asks, in perhaps my favourite wry moment of the film.

Recreational (vehicle) hazard...

In fairness to Pegg and Frost, the film does pull back a bit. It acknowledges the issue, aggressively mocks it, but it doesn’t fixate on it. This isn’t an “issue” movie, and the pair know the film isn’t a soapbox. It’s just nice to see that sort of thing acknowledged in a movie where it makes sense for it to be acknowledged, rather than seeing the film breezing over it, afraid of alienating potential viewers by making some fairly logical and common sense points.

However, the movie does labour a bit under its affectionate geek plot. Nobody in the film, from the two nerds to the agents chasing them to the rednecks, ever seem like anything more than a collection of stereotypes or references and homages. It’s hard to dislike the film, given the charming performances from a solid ensemble, but it also makes the film feel rather shallow. As solid as the cast might be, there’s never really a sense that any of them resemble real people, with real goals or ambitions, or real dreams. They’re merely blank slates all acting in a way that facilitates a good-old fashioned road movie full of abiding love for science-fiction subculture.

Not from this neck of the woods...

More frustrating, however, is the movie’s capacity to latch on to a joke that was only reasonably funny the first time, and then run it into the ground. Hey, Frost and Pegg play two grown men on holiday together in a camper van – they must be gay, right? No, wait, let’s hear a few more jokes about Paul’s infamous “space balls!” It feels like the movie labours this sort of crude humour that might work the first time, but loses a lot of its novelty through seemingly ceaseless repetition.

Still, there are nice touches. I especially like the way the movie captures the culture clash between Britain and America. I suspect that the jokes might not seem quite as funny to American audiences, if only because they seem to be written from the perspective of Frost and Pegg. I love the idea that a police officer is only familiar with Britain because it has “no guns.” He follows up with a serious question, “How are police supposed to shoot anybody?”

Keep watching the... well, you know...

This feels like an affectionate retread of the ground the pair covered in Hot Fuzz, a movie which worked so well because it transposed the European notion that American pop culture is built around guns, and transposed to a decidedly quirky British setting. Even small things, like making the alien wear pants, seems like an affectionate nod to American media sensitivity towards nudity. I was reminded of the infamous request that animator Bob Clampett got from producers, asking him to draw pants on his cartoon characters because they looked naked.

Paul himself is an interesting creation. He’s not a technical marvel, and he’s not the best computer-generated lead of the year, but he is proof that computer animation has come far enough to make a film like this possible. With his textured skin and his puppy-dog eyes, the lead character is almost as charming as the film around him. Seth Rogan’s voice performance adds a profane yet charming character to this animated alien, and I think Rogan is well used here.

He's so (other)worldly...

Paul might not be the comedy of the year – suffering from an over-reliance on particular jokes, and lacking any tangible characterisation – but it does have enough charm to sustain the audience’s interest over the movie’s runtime. It’s not out this world, but it’s not a bad film either.

6 Responses

  1. What I love about “Paul” is that this is a rare movie where being a geek is celebrated rather than scorned or made fun of. I can see the cast of “The Big Bang Theory” traveling right along side Pegg and Frost. In fact, this is probably closest of all of their films to their TV series “Spaced.”

    I plan on addressing other aspects of this movie in an upcoming article. Look for it soon.

  2. It’s not as funny as I was expecting from the talent in front of, and behind the camera but I still had some nice laughs. Also, this is Seth Rogen playing Seth Rogen, which he is always best at. He should keep doing that and not try to be a different type of Seth Rogen like we saw in The Green Hornet. Nice review Darren.

    • I don’t know, I think the Green Hornet didn’t work because it wasn;t un-Rogan-like enough. He was a dick, but was still played as this likeable character, which he really wasn’t. So I found this weird disconnect.

  3. Simon Pegg is fast becoming my favorite comics. I have enjoyed everything he has done from Hot Fuzz to Paul

    • I like Pegg, though I am fonder now that he’s kinda slowed down a bit. There was a while he was everywhere and it was just… too much, I think.

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