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March 20, 2011

Movie Review: Paul

Paul. I'll give it two stars -- not worth seeing in theaters and only barely worth renting.

They always say you should review the movie they actually made, rather than postulating a different movie they could have made in your own head and comparing it to that. There's probably something to that advice, but I can't help it: I could not watch this movie without thinking UR DOING IT WRONG almost the whole time. I kept thinking that almost every major choice they made was wrong and a different, more obvious choice was much, much closer to right.

Maybe that's unfair -- but I can't help but thinking there was a much better movie here that never made it on to film.

First up, given that this is a conservative blog -- if you're a Christian who doesn't believe in evolution, observe the warning that in this film's 100 minutes running time a good 10 minutes are spent on making fun of those who don't believe in evolution and the Christian worldview generally.

Even if you get past that (I could, mostly, though I was sitting there wondering, 'What is so much of this one off-message joke doing in an ET/Close Encounters parody?"), the rest of the film just isn't very good, and I say that as a fan of the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost collaborations. Because I like those guys, I don't really want to pan them. But this movie just isn't very good at all.

I didn't think the movie had much promise from the trailer, which isn't all that funny, and seems to be going for cuteness more than comedy. I didn't like that the trailer seemed to dwell on the film's One Big Joke -- wouldn't it be funny if an extraterrestrial had Seth Rogan's voice and stoner personality?" Well, it might be funny for a ten minute SNL sketch, but for a 100 minute movie? What else you got?

Well, not much, which is what I'd feared.

As the film opened I actually grew more optimistic. It starts with Pegg & Frost as a pair of sci-fi geeks (shocking, I know) getting their nerd on at Comic-Con in San Diego, and it's always fun to see geeks just enjoying their geekiness.

Pegg's a comic-book type illustrator, Frost is a sci-fi novelist. That seems a little reversed to me, as I'd expect Pegg to play the more-centered, more normal writer and Frost the wildman, kind-of crazy illustrator, but they seem to want to play slightly against type.

I don't know if that was a good choice. Nick Frost had a strong personality in Shaun of the Dead, the juvenile, dopey, thunder-farting pub-crawling miscreant; he didn't want to play that One Typecast Role again, I guess, which is fair enough, but so here he instead plays... a kind of normal, centered likable-but-not-really-remarkable-or-interesting guy.

Meanwhile Pegg plays... well, he also plays the normal, centered, likable-but-not-really-remarkable-or-interesting guy.

This is a mistake, I think, right from the jump, because road movies are usually notable for the tension between the main characters more than tension between them and external forces. (Or its the external forces that cook up the tension between the main characters, which is the real payoff.) Lost in America -- that wonderful sequence of Julie Haggerty losing the "nest-egg." Planes, Trains, & Automobiles and its inferior but still watchable ripoff Due Date -- obviously there we had two characters in strong opposition.

Hell, even Road Trip understood this.

Instead, here, we have two basically average and psychologically stable (read: boring) mates who like and respect each other. Not exactly a scenario bubbling with comedic agitation.

Maybe they thought they didn't need that, because they had an alien who was going to intrude and provide all that bubbly, manic tension... but it turns out not so much, because the alien ("Paul"), while sort of annoying (I got tired of Seth Rogan's voice three minutes in), is also sort of... centered and likable and not particularly interesting. Or vexing to Pegg & Frost.

Basically he's kind of an extraterrestrial riff on "The Dude" from The Big Lebowski, offering half-baked hippy wisdom and calmness. He's not notably mischievous, selfish, sex-obsessed, thieving, deceiving, or any of the other classic character traits that would make for good bicker-and-argue type road comedy.

Anyway, at the hotel room back at Comic-Con, the friendly, likable, get-along-just-fine-thank-you friends lay out their plan: They've rented an RV and plan to drive the "Extraterrestrial Highway" through the American Southwest, hitting all the central places of alien-visitation lore: "The Black Mailbox," Area 51, Roswell. (No, I didn't know what "The Black Mailbox" was either, and it wasn't really explained in the movie, but here you go.)

When I first saw the trailer, I thought that basic plot outline was kind of dumb and lame. But as I watched the movie, I sort of got interested in it -- what a fun, kitschy, silly sort of road trip. I got interested in the friends' travels, and thought about the cool plot they could develop around it: a great opportunity to have the alien explain the real story behind the alien mythology (and of course the real story would be more ludicrous and convoluted than even the UFO speculations we're familiar with).

No such luck. They actually depart completely from their scheduled itinerary after only seeing the Black Mailbox; after that they pick up Paul, the alien, who insists they drive due north instead, where he's arranged a pick-up from other aliens. From there it's a series of stops at trailer-parks and desert-country dive bars you never heard of (exception: there is a payoff at the end.)

There are two related, minor stabs at attempting an alien counter-mythology, and while neither is bad or anything, neither is exactly riveting or novel.

As they make their way due north, well away from the promise of Roswell and Area 51, they're pursued by three Men In Black types working for an unnamed agency -- Jason Bateman, a professional, smart, diligent and menacing corporate-looking operative, who clashes with the duo assigned to work under him, Bill Hader and Jo LoTruglio (from The State, Role Models), who are incompetent, childish idiots who like trying to drop Cop Action Movie Tough-Guy lines and engage in games designed for babies when they're bored. These three are actually fairly funny -- funnier than the trio of heroes -- but they're not on screen all that much and, while funny, aren't so funny they save the movie.

I guess it should be noted from those three that when you invest a trio of characters with comedic flaws and stupidities and tensions between them, you have the makings of comedy. I don't know why this basic insight wasn't extended to the heroes.

As the heroes travel, they pick up Kristin Wiig, a fundamentalist Christian woman with one eye. She's convinced that there can't be aliens because God only made one world, and she wears a t-shirt depicting Jesus putting a gun to Darwin's head and blowing a bullet through it. She therefore thinks the sweet, tender, annoying Paul is a demon.

This would be something like the comedic tension I keep talking about, but it last for five minutes, because Paul gets sick of arguing with her and does a Spock mind-meld sort of memory transfer and fills her with all of his knowledge and experience. So he carries around a magic I Win the Argument button. Maybe it's supposed to recall Woody Allen's pulling out Rod McCuen Marshall McLuhan to win an argument in Annie Hall. I don't know.

From that point on, Wiig realizes there is no God and therefore no sin and decides to live a sinful, pot-smoking, fornicating life. The major comedy premise they push here is that she wants to curse -- having spent her whole life not cursing -- but isn't good at it yet due to lack of experience, so she keeps stuffing clumsy mix-metaphor curses into virtually everything she says, no matter how mundane.

Funny? Well, I think they hit this joke (estimated) about 20 times. Maybe three of these were funny; the rest were greeted by me with the psychic command "Let's move into some new territory here, huh, guys?"

If you were looking for some hilarious cameos from Jane Lynch, David Koechner, and __________ (I leave that blank, because a pair of cameos weren't shown in the trailer), prepare for disappointment; Lynch is only on screen as a waitress for literally five minutes and has about ten lines, six of which are just about the guys ordering food from her. She has one actual scripted joke (which isn't funny). They don't do anything with Koechner, or the other big on-sceen cameo.

My last complaint is about Paul, namely everything about him. In terms of visual design, he's a Disneyesque CGI confection of creature cuteness, constantly batting the lashes over his huge blue doe-eyes (with side-swiping nicitating membrane, a design element lifted straight from Men in Black), which would work well for a movie aimed at children, but this one is R-rated for drugs and language, so why is this alien so kid-friendly Happy Meal cute? I really think that the movie would have been funnier if Paul's main characteristics weren't "sweet, wise, and lovable" but "a mischievous scoundrel and a selfish dick," and the character design should match that.

Most alien-visitor movies posit that their ETs have some strong innate, Christ-like magical abilities. (Oh, it's "science" so it's not magic, it's psychic something or other.) This movie follows that tradition, giving Paul the powers of invisibility, memory transfer, and of course healing and resurrection. (No spoiler there -- you see it in the trailer. He brings a bird back to life.)

This is of the general motif of seriously-intended alien-visitor movies where the visitor is clearly a Christ analogue; but does it make much sense in a send-up? Wouldn't it make more sense, comedically, if Paul had no powers and indeed was a screw-up? (In fairness, that last point is touched but rather too lightly, I think. He's much closer to the Christ-analogue ET than Zaphod Beeblebrox.)

Finally, and I already mentioned this, but Seth Rogan's voice was just unwelcome here. I'm not a Rogan-hater, but the man is over-exposed as it is, and there's just so many times I can take the standard-issue bearishly-sweet rumbly stoner voice from Rogan. Rogan is not really a natural actor -- he doesn't have some Big Presence that lights up the screen, but rather makes himself into an actor through force of will and some smart low-key choices in his career.

I really think Paul needed, in order to work, a much Bigger Voice, something more absurdly incongruous, like, I don't know, Russel Brand or somebody. (I only think of him because the Arthur remake's trailer screened before this.)

Or Jonah Hill, if you're going with a Superbad choice. (The director here directed Superbad.) Jonah Hill might have worked better.

Or, seriously -- Charlie Sheen. Someone who, as they say, walks on to the stage with their character already in place.

Or... anyone. I think the missing ingredient here is just that someone has to bring the chaos for this sort of movie to work. If everyone brings order and peace, well... order and peace is a lovely place to live but I wouldn't want to see a movie about it.

It may be funny that an alien is a chill hippie who smokes cigarettes and pot and drinks for about ten minutes, and not really any longer than that. But that, and Wiig's inept attempts at cursing, are the major go-to jokes here, thrown in when they've got nothing else, and they generally do have nothing else, because they just didn't stack up a bunch of potential comedy plot points early on to exploit them later. The trip they're on is a rambling, shambling improvised make-it-up-as-we-go affair, and damn if the script isn't too.

Pegg's and Frost's usual partner in crime is writer-director Edgar Wright, absent here, who just recently did Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World without Pegg or Frost, which I also thought was pretty useless. These three need to reunite and make another big crowd-pleasing splash; they can't live forever off the substantial geek-goodwill of Shaun of the Dead.

Oh: There is another cameo I forgot that works better (but still not great; no cameo is going to save a movie). And they do get a few chuckles from borrowing famous lines from sci-fi moves, putting them into a different context, so they work as lines in the moment but also reference the movies they come from.

That's cute, but there are like eight such lines, and they're more smiles than laughs.

Oh: Road movies usually have decent Radio Hit soundtracks. This one does. It has, if I remember right, several 70s rock songs I liked hearing again, one by the James Gang, and a great one by Marvin Gaye.

Not really like inspired choices, but listenable.

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posted by Ace at 01:39 PM

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