A Valentine to Spielberg
First they paid homage to zombies, then to buddy cop films, now Simon Pegg and Nick Frost send a valentine to Steven Spielberg with "Paul" (opening March 18 throughout San Diego).
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost first gained attention in the U.S. for their spot on British rom-zom-com "Shaun of the Dead" in 2004. But the two had previously worked together on the brilliant BBC comedy series "Spaced" in 2001. They also worked together on "Hot Fuzz," their take on 70s cop buddy films. All three of these projects reflect the pair's obsessive love for pop culture.
Their latest collaboration taps into their affection for sci-fi, comics, aliens, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg. The result is "Paul," a film about two British geeks on a pilgrimage to all the alien encounter sights in America. Their journey begins at Comic-Con (the exteriors were shot in San Diego but the interiors were actually done in New Mexico) where Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) are geeking out over a sci-fi writer (Jeffrey Tambor) and assorted other things at the pop culture Mecca. Then they hit the road in an RV with plans to see such sights as Roswell and Area 51. But along the way they meet a real alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) who, like ET, is trying to get home. Only unlike ET, Paul is a pot-smoking dude with a rude sense of humor.
"Paul" is the first film Pegg and Frost have collaborated on without director Edgar Wright, and his absence is felt. Greg Mottola (of "Superbad") is at the helm instead and he doesn't have anywhere near the attention to detail that Wright has nor does he seem to inspire Pegg and Frost to push themselves. So "Paul" turns out to be a sweetly appealing film but it lacks the zing and delicious delight of "Shaun" and "Hot Fuzz." It's like those films at half speed or with half the jokes.
But Pegg and Frost are adorable geeks, and their affection for all things alien and sci-fi is undeniable. They are popular at Comic-Con because they are not like a lot of celebrities who are just slumming to promote a film; they are fans themselves and they totally get the geeky passion that fuels people like Graeme and Clive. So the scenes of them at Comic-Con feel genuine and capture the spirit of the convention. At one point they buy a Gorn mask so they can recreate a scene from "Star Trek" when they visit Vazquez rock. The thing that differentiates their humor from a lot of others is that it's free from meanness. They are not making fun of people like Graeme and Clive but rather taking delight in their silly obsessions. And that's one reason why the film is so charming and utterly likable.
An example of their endearing sense of humor can be seen when Graeme and Clive reach the dividing line between time zones. They jump back and forth across the divider and proclaim they are time traveling. That's the kind of cute I can enjoy. Even when the language gets raunchy and there's some violence, there's still an underlying sweetness to proceedings. Even the rude alien Paul has a streak of kindness running through him. He reveals this most poignantly at the end when he makes a special stop before heading home.
Pegg and Frost also create a script that is loaded with pop culture references. It's fun to see how many you can catch on the first go round. I mean you have to be pretty deep into sci-fi films to reference the 1988 alien kid's film "Mac and Me." But there are also lines lifted directly from "Star Wars," locations from "Close Encounters," jokes from "Back to the Future," and more. As with "Shaun" and "Hot Fuzz," part of the pleasure is keeping a sharp lookout for all the in jokes no matter how obscure.
The casting also proves fun. In addition to lovable Pegg and Frost, you get Jason Bateman, Sigourney Weaver, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Jane Lynch, Blythe Danner, and even a cameo of sorts from Steven Spielberg. It's a fun ensemble and Seth Rogen even dials back on his usual schtick to fit in better with the group.
"Paul" (rated R for language including sexual references, and some drug use) doesn't provide the same high level of sustained humor and freshness found in "Shaun of the Dead," but it's the kind of comedy that puts a smile on your face and just makes you feel happy. Let's just call this one sweet geek love.