The saying goes, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. This could be applied to the masterful cinematic combination of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost. These three individuals have oodles of talent on their own; but bring the three of them together, and they hit a whole new level of brilliance. Separate the trio, and while the work is still very good, it doesn’t quite reach the same peak. Scott Pilgrim is one example of this; and now Paul is another. Not a great film, but a very good one.
Pegg and Frost play Graeme and Clive respectively, two British geeks who take a lifelong dream trip to Comic-Con in San Diego, followed by a road trip in an RV to famous UFO/alien sites of the southwest United States. Late one night they encounter Paul (the oddest named alien in film history, voiced by Seth Rogen), who needs them to help him get to Wyoming so he can get the hell out of Dodge. They are being followed by a government agent, two slightly inept cops, and manage to pickup an odd religious nut along the way.
This is a good premise: earthly aliens (Brits in America) teaming up with an unearthly one. All are in a land whose culture is foreign; all stick out like oases in the desert, and all are slightly uncomfortable with their strangeness, except with each other. The film follows a fairly predictable pattern of flight from the law, strange encounters with even stranger people, disaster, romance, and eventual redemption. Paul has some extremely funny and clever moments, most riding on the audience’s knowledge of other sci-fi films from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It pokes fun at Hollywood’s obsession with and characterization of alien life (in particular the alleged need aliens have to examine the more disgusting parts of the human body,) and the various filmic interpretations. These moments are made both for obsessed sci-fi film geeks and the casual observer who has likely seen only the more iconic alien films.
And there are new, classic Pegg/Frost style moments: the friendship between Clive and Graeme borders on romantic (a joke played out perhaps a little too much), the physical guffaws are subtle enough to get a big laugh without the need to be overdrawn, and it’s nice to see a bit of a reversal in personality, as Frost’s Clive is a bit more intelligent than Pegg’s slightly dumbfounded Graeme.
However, the film never quite reaches the heights of their previous work. Their past films are so tight, and so clever in every shot and every scene that they are seamless works of art. I don’t know if Pegg and Frost were forced to dumb down the film for an American audience, but there was too much wasted time. This is certainly a top-notch cast who could more than handle a more sophisticated humour, with great comic actors such as Jane Lynch, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and John Carroll Lynch. Paul has far too many scenes in which very little happens, and the clever bits are good, but never quite reach the great heights of their past work. It is definitely – perhaps not Americanized, but Hollywoodized, in that the jokes are relatively obvious and even Pegg’s and Frost’s characters are toned down for the less sophisticated audience. I have not seen director Greg Mottola’s previous films (Superbad, Adventureland), but I suspect he might be part of the problem. There is nothing particularly exciting about the direction, as though the hope was that the script alone would carry the film.
Paul proves that script, actors, and director must combine to make a great film. The absence of Wright at the helm is felt, as the absence of Pegg at the typewriter could be felt in Scott Pilgrim. Again, Paul is a very good film, and could certainly be enjoyed by a large audience; but like Chinese food, it will likely be forgotten not long after consumption.