This doesn’t really relate to today’s movie in the slightest, but I met Edgar Wright at the London Film Festival last October. He ran into me outside the Leicester Square Odeon. Literally. He just bumped right off my chest. The man is quite wee.
Aliens, nerds, Feds… Oh my!
Two English sci-fi geeks are taking a road trip through the UFO hotspots of California and Nevada when they accidentally come across a real live ET, named Paul, who has escaped from Area 51. Chased by the Secret Service, they try to get Paul to the pick-up spot so he can catch his ride home.
This is Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s first film together without the third leg of their tripod, one Edgar Wright as co-writer and director. In his stead we have Greg Mottola, director of Superbad and a long-time veteran of the Judd Apatow stable. I guess that makes this collaboration the A-Team of trans-Atlantic comedy. The rest of the cast only enhances that expectation; Seth Rogen lends his dulcet tones to the voice of Paul; Jason Bateman is the apparently unhinged Agent Zoil of the Secret Service; Kristen Wiig plays Pegg’s love interest; and Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio are Bateman’s inept and clueless sidekicks. Throw in Sigourney Weaver and Blythe Danner and that’s quite a level of anticipation. Does Paul deliver? Like you even need to ask.
The script, by Pegg and Frost, trades on the chemistry between their characters Graeme and Clive as life-long friends. Even if you haven’t already seen Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (and if you are that guy, get it sorted), you can see that chemistry from the first seconds of the film. The relationship between the guys is as plain as day and it makes everything else seem less ridiculous. Their role here is to be the audience surrogates. Graeme and Clive’s incredulity at the appearance of Paul and subsequent acceptance of him mirrors your own. The fact that they both don’t just immediately come around is a nice touch as well. Graeme (Pegg) gets to know Paul sooner than Clive does because Clive passed out as soon as he laid eyes on him. This is carried on throughout the story when Clive takes longer to get used to having the little guy around. It’s little touches like that that ground the admittedly bonkers story in some kind of reality.
Greg Mottola does a good job as director as well. He’s smart enough and experienced enough not to try and rip off Wright’s style – there is not a smash-cut or a whip-pan in sight. Visually, Paul hews closer to something like his earlier hit, Superbad. It has that same kind of almost languid feel to it in the first act, but as the story picks up and everything starts to converge on the climax, the camera begins to move a bit faster and he starts tossing in some slo-mo here and there, as well as the odd explosion just for shits and giggles.
It’s great to see Jason Bateman cut loose and go completely against type as the badass Secret Service agent with echoes of Alonzo Mosley and Sam Gerard, after years of playing nebbishes like Michael Bluth of Arrested Development (which, incidentally, Mottola also helmed a bunch of episodes for). He’s still funny as hell though, even when shooting out the two-way in his car, following it up with the traditional “Boring conversation anyway”. Speaking of which, this script is stuffed with references to other science fiction classics. Some are more subtle than others (compare a roadhouse band playing the Mos Eisley tune in bluegrass style to Blythe Danner punching out Sigourney Weaver with “get away from her, you bitch” echoing in her ears. Even Paul’s collection spot is on Devil’s Mountain!), but the movie and the cast are funny enough to handle these without them becoming the sole attempt at humour. A lot of these call-backs actually get an in-universe explanation, which makes a bit of a nice change; it seems that while a resident of Area 51 for the past 60-odd years, Paul has been only too happy to share his stories with anyone he was allowed to speak to, thus most of the references are played up as things Paul himself has influenced. If Shaun was their Romero and Hot Fuzz their Bay, Paul is Pegg and Frost’s love letter to Spielberg.
I’ve been a fan of Seth Rogen since Freaks and Geeks, but even I was pleasantly surprised by some of the nuance he brings to his performance here, particularly in his few scenes with Blythe Danner as Tara, the grown-up version of the young girl who found him when he crashed his ship all those years ago. Admittedly he does pretty much play himself for a lot of the movie though, or at least the public perception of himself, throwing out “cocksucker”s and “motherfucker”s left and right, pausing now and then for a good hit on a spliff. I haven’t caught Bridesmaids yet and we don’t get SNL this side of the Atlantic, so I only really knew Kristen Wiig from MacGruber before today, but I’m smitten. Her role as a Christian fundamentalist (emphasis on the mentalist. Zing!) whose faith is destroyed by Paul’s very existence and then goes on a mission to catch up on all the sinning she’s been missing, is arguably the fullest arc of any character in the flick but she nails every beat. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this lady has a solid future ahead of her.
If there’s a problem with this film, it would be that I was a little taken aback by the fates of the comically useless Agents Haggard and O’Reilly (Hader and Lo Truglio). It just seemed a bit tonally out of sync with the rest of the movie, but if that’s my only complaint I guess it’s not much of a complaint at all. If you are new to the Pegg/Frost oeuvre, this is probably a good place to start. It’s certainly a bit easier to get into than Shaun or Fuzz. You can call it a gateway film.