The first character we meet in the new Simon Pegg/Nick Frost comedy, Paul, is called Paul. Paul is a dog. Paul seems a pleasant sort, but his future is not rosy. Paul is about to have a spaceship land on him. The note I jotted down while watching this sad event, in memory of which the real title character renames himself, reads, “If this thing is in fact a dog, convenient that it opens by making it easy for me to say so”.
Paul isn’t a dog. But, aliens, sci-fi movie gags and whole rooms full of eminently mockable sci-fi geeks notwithstanding, it isn’t out of this world either. In another early scene, Pegg and Frost’s Brit-geek characters, on holiday in America and still wide-eyed with astonishment to find that the setting of so many of their favourite movies really exists, meet a genuine American cop. “I heard about England,” he remarks. “No guns.” They agree that this is indeed the case. “Well how are police supposed to shoot anybody?”
Clearly the answer to this question is, “Have you not seen Hot Fuzz, dude?” And this is itself the question to put to anyone sitting down to watch Paul, because if you’ve never seen Pegg and Frost’s other comedies, you’ll find this one a pleasant enough way to spend an evening. It pushes no envelopes, it raises no bars, but it’s comfortable, it’s undemanding, and it has some nice moments.
If you’ve seen the Pegg/Frost cop movie spoof Hot Fuzz, on the other hand – in which it emerges that the quiet England contryside harbours enough guns to outfit an entire Schwarzenegger franchise – or the Pegg/Frost zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead, then you need to lower your expectations. This is not Pegg and Frost spin genre straw into gold part three. In fact the real importance of Paul is to make it clear just how much director and co-writer Edgar Wright contributed to the earlier Pegg/Frost outings. Go look at Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World (and really, you should), and then at Hot Fuzz (am I alone in preferring this to Shaun of the Dead?), and then watch Paul. It’s not that you’ll hate Paul; it’s a passable enough night out. But what you’ll see very quickly is that Wright makes snappy, well constructed films where the unfunny jokes don’t make the cut and the “we just felt like it” scenes get worked over until they can pay their own way.
Paul, on the other hand, was directed by Greg Mottolla and co-written by Pegg and Frost. Mottolla is known for Superbad, and known rather less for Adventureland, which is a sweet, clever, not-really-genre-transcending-but-maybe-just-a-bit coming-of-age romcom. Pegg co-wrote both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. This is Frost’s first movie writing credit. Whoever brought what to the table, the result is a bit shapeless, a bit why-the-hell-not, and a very great deal Seth Rogan.
Rogan voices Paul, the grey, big-eyed, oval-headed alien who flies the ship that squashes the dog; though it would be more accurate to say that Paul the alien body-doubles for Rogan. Paul is just a regular guy, kind of a slob but warm hearted and well intentioned, and if you think of this film as the latest Rogan regular-guy bromantic slob-comedy, you’ll have more fun than if you approach it as a Pegg/Frost genre satire gone slightly wrong. That’s a difficult line to walk, because while it taps Pegg and Frost’s easy chemistry for all the bromance vibe it can get, a genre satire is clearly what it most wants to be. There are sci-fi movie in-jokes everywhere you turn, most of them funny only by default (“this is an in-joke, therefore you will laugh”), though a few hit their marks. (There are also Blues Brothers in-jokes; this is a road movie, but exactly why we get those particular road movie jokes and no other ones is a mystery to me. See “we just felt like it”.)
The only faintly edgy thing in sight is the film’s willingness to hold up Christian fundamentalists for mockery, to a degree which hardly counts as extreme, but probably does count as bold in a major American studio release. Beyond that, Rogan is likeable, for a certain your-mileage-may-vary value of “likeable”, and Pegg and Frost would be endearing presences even if they didn’t arouse memories of their (mostly) endearing presences in other films. The three of them in a campervan, being chased by government spooks in dark glasses as they make their way towards the Rendezvous with the Mothership (TM), make for a nice coat-hanger to trail hit-and-miss jokes off; no one will curse the day they sat down to watch this movie. Of course, in a few months’ time, no one will remember having watched it, either.
PAUL, directed by Greg Mottola, showing now.