The syrupy geek sentiment that forms the lifeblood of Paul carries a communicable charm that's nearly impossible to resist. And even if this loving homage to all things sci-fi never quite hits the sturdy comedic stride of, say, Shaun of the Dead or Superbad -- the two films audiences are most likely to compare it to -- movie lovers will still have a field day wading through the nonstop film references, while fans of creative profanity will find plenty to chuckle about, and the fun being had by the cast lends the whole affair an affectionate, laid-back appeal.
Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) are two British sci-fi geeks on holiday in America. After a trip to Comic-Con to meet their favorite author, Adam Shadowchild (Jeffrey Tambor), Graeme and Clive load up their RV and hit the road for a tour of some of the most famous UFO hotspots in the American Southwest. They know we're not alone in the universe, but they won't be satisfied until they get a firsthand glimpse of the famed Area 51. However, somewhere deep in the Nevada desert, the two UFO enthusiasts happen across a most unlikely hitchhiker. Paul (voice of Seth Rogen) is a pint-sized alien who has spent the last 60 years in Area 51. He's been cooped up in the care of the U.S. Government for far too long, and he's starting to get a little homesick. Though Graeme and Clive are more than willing to help their wisecracking new friend get back to his mother ship, Special Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) of the FBI is closing in fast. And he's not the only one; in their race to get their new friend home, Graeme and Clive have also become unwitting kidnappers, and the enraged father of their not-so-unwilling captive, Ruth (Kristen Wiig), is determined to rescue his daughter at all costs.
From Spaced onward, longtime collaborators (and renowned offscreen pals) Pegg and Frost have constructed nearly their entire careers on the foundation of clever film references. The longer the self-professed fanboys stick to their routine formula of paying homage, though, the less effective it becomes. Perhaps it's due to the notable absence of longtime collaborator Edgar Wright in Paul, but this gleefully obscene road trip comedy lacks the inspiration and creative flair that endeared Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and even the somewhat spotty Hot Fuzz to fun-loving pop-culture junkies weaned on a steady diet of genre films and sugary beverages. Still, saying that Paul is the least inspired work from the people who gave us some of the previous decade's best comedies isn't to say that it's an outright failure, just that it's pretty much on par with your average Hollywood comedy -- only with a geeky slant rather than a populist one.
Nevertheless, it's hard not to love a film that's so sincere in its unabashed love for all things dorky, and the team behind Paul does deserve extra credit for having the courage to turn out an R-rated comedy that could have easily been watered down to a PG-13 if they simply wanted to sell more tickets. The fact that Pegg, Frost, and director Greg Mottola created such an amiable, sweet-natured comedy with such cheerfully profane dialogue shows that they still haven't compromised their creative vision, a fact that adult moviegoers are sure to appreciate in a time when it seems like most filmmakers are quick to sacrifice integrity in favor of mass appeal. Likewise, some of the best jokes in Paul are also the most incidental, such as the climactic revelation of Agent Zoil's first name, or the throwaway line from Bill Hader -- playing one of Zoil's underlings -- after shining a flashlight on his partner's junk.
Although in many films the fun being had by the cast on the set doesn't always show through in the final product, it's easy to get caught up in the good vibes reverberating throughout Paul, thanks not only to the authentic connection between the film's two leads, but also the supporting performances by Joe Lo Truglio, Wiig, Hader, and Bateman. And despite the fact that the gimmick of a foul-mouthed, ganja-smoking Grey with the personality of Seth Rogen does wear thin rather quickly, the character of Paul is animated in a way that still makes him endearing despite the one-note gag. Thankfully Paul brings geek humor to the masses a bit more effectively than the dismal Fanboys did just a few years back; however, that doesn't change the fact that, from the plot to the dialogue, virtually everything about the film is derivative. If Pegg and Frost are truly going to have any staying power on the big screen, it's high time they broke out of their comfort zone and finally challenged themselves to make a movie that's completely original.