At first glance, the intergalactic road trip comedy Paul looks like the spiritual successor to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. But while the dynamic duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost star in and wrote the screenplay for the film, it owes more to the Apatowian universe of which director Greg Mottola is a part. Mottola replaces Pegg’s frequent collaborator, writer-director Edgar Wright, who was busy directing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World when this one came down the pipeline. While Wright’s influence – and dynamic camera – is missed, the film manages to find the uniting factors between varied styles of comedy.
Paul follows Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) as they embark on a UFO-themed road trip across the American West. Pegg and Frost are right in their wheelhouse as a pair of maladjusted nerds, with their well-developed rapport intact. Apart from an encounter with a couple of ornery rednecks (redundant?), their trip is going off without a hitch – until they encounter a crude Little Green Man named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen).
Paul is on the run from shadowy government types: Jason Bateman as the ice-cold Agent Zoil, and Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio as the haphazard man-children Agents Haggard and O’Reilly. Graeme and Clive agree to shuttle Paul to an undisclosed location, eventually adding Christian fundamentalist Ruth (the primed-to-breakout Kristen Wiig) to their traveling party.
As the gang stays roughly half-a-step ahead of their multiple pursuers (rednecks, feds, and Christians, oh my), characters and relationships are developed along predictable lines. Graeme romances Ruth, who sees the world with new eyes (literally). Clive deals with bruised feelings as his best friend is co-opted by an alien and a woman. If the film lags, it does so while the script sets up the emotional payoff of the final act.
While the script may stumble with a few extraneous diversions, the dialogue is hilarious: the right mix of vulgarity (especially as Ruth learns how to swear) and sci-fi references. Unlike the Pegg-Wright films, these are references of substance, not references of style, so expect borrowed lines and homages from Star Wars, Star Trek, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, including the best use ever of the famed music of the Mos Eisley Cantina Band.
A screenplay is only as good as the actors delivering the lines; this is where Paul really shines. The Apatow repertory players, SNL veterans, and UK comedy legends all bring something to the table, their different styles streamlined into a cohesive one.
Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Spaced (the cult TV show directed by Wright and written by Pegg and Jessica Stevenson) grow more rewarding after multiple viewings due to fast-paced dialogue and nuanced references. While Paul might not match them on those marks, the surprisingly heart-warming story – dick jokes and all – will keep fans laughing for years to come.