The ad campaign for PAUL has wittily informed us that this film was directed by "the earthling who brought you SUPERBAD," Greg Mottola. Of course, since PAUL is largely a comedy, there won't be a single ad that'll allude to the director's more recent cinematic offering, the amazingly delightful ADVENTURELAND, because studio heads won't want you to think "No way, man, I'm not gonna go see a movie that's supposed to be funny and then isn't." Much to my huge chagrin, ADVENTURELAND was sold as a comedy, which led the mainstream audience to say "Meh" and move on after seeing it, leaving the rest of us who want unconventional and emotionally-intelligent dramas as the only people who could appreciate it. The good news is that the ads for PAUL aren't as misleading. Because it's a comedy, it makes sense to identify it as being from the director of SUPERBAD. The big question I had before watching PAUL, though, was whether Mottola would do what I begged him to do a little over a year ago. When I compiled my top 10 list for 2009 and cited ADVENTURELAND for its endearing nature and for catering to those of us who prefer movies that are more heartfelt and honest, I made reference to something Mottola said in the audio commentary for the film: "I didn't want this film to be 'cool'. This is for the 'uncool' people. We need something, too." After quoting that, I begged Mottola to continue that approach and not let studio heads tweak his films in order to satisfy mainstream audiences instead. So, has Mottola continued his goal of satisfying us "uncool" people with his most recent film? Sort of. The movie is decidedly aimed at sci-fi geeks, but the humor is broad enough that it'll satisfy others who won't get all of the dozens upon dozens of references to certain films and TV shows. The result is a film that's worth seeing, despite not reaching the level of comedic brilliance of SUPERBAD nor the dramatic greatness of ADVENTURELAND.
Clive (Nick Frost) and Graeme (Simon Pegg) are a pair of British guys who have just arrived in the U.S., and they basically pee their pants as soon as they arrive at Comic-con, which is the first part of their trip. The second part of their trip consists of visiting places where aliens have supposedly been seen. But the "supposedly" in that sentence becomes an unnecessary caveat, because Clive and Graeme soon have, um, an encounter... with Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), who looks exactly like every picture of an alien you've ever seen (we're later told why he does). The apparently defenseless creature is being tracked down by government agents, and begs the two guys to let him tag along in their RV, so that he can hide with them. The trio is eventually joined by the ultra-religious Ruth (Kristen Wiig) who initially thinks Paul is a demon.
Road trip hilarity ensues, mostly because, despite being an alien, the title character expresses himself like a regular human - and by that, I mean that he curses a lot, has fits of anger and makes raunchy sexual references. This is where we see the difference between what could've been a lame and uninspired PG-13 film, and the hard R we get here. The irreverent humor spewed by Paul is constantly good, and occasionally great. One of the biggest compliments I can give PAUL is that, despite having its share of obscure references that only some will notice, it has its share of broad ones that I'm sure 98% of people will get. In a conversation between the two villains who are tracking Paul down (Jason Bateman and Sigourney Weaver, both terrific in this movie), one of them worriedly says "The little fucker might've phoned home!" It's hard to imagine anyone not recognizing that or finding it funny. The film even quotes a line from TITANIC at one point, so it's not like its satirical focus is 100% set on the genre it so obviously reveres. Oh, and there's an instance in which we get to see a picture of a former president of the U.S., and the comment written on the picture is one heck of a delightful political jab. I was laughing at it even during the scene that came right after it.
Nick Frost and Simon Pegg clearly relish playing their geek selves here, and I think it's easy to have almost as much fun watching them as they probably did playing the two roles. Seth Rogen is enormously effective voicing the title character: it's interesting because, though you're constantly aware of the fact that it's his voice, it doesn't feel distracting in the least bit. It adds to the comedic feel. Jason Bateman makes for a terrific villain (and the film does have an interesting twist involving his character). Bill Hader is back to playing an inept cop as only he can do it, and the result is often hilarious. Kristen Wiig shows that she should stick to playing awkward characters who say inappropriate things every 2 seconds. During her first few scenes in the film, she plays a hard-nosed Christian, and she feels miscast at it, but as soon as her character makes a drastic transformation, she's back to being as funny as she's always been in comedic supporting roles.
Why can't PAUL measure up to Mottola's prior two offerings? Despite having its moments of sweetness and its moments of raunchy hilarity, the film does occasionally devolve into unnecessary physical humor. Take, for instance, a scene in which two characters are having the classic "God vs. Darwin" argument. The scene would be great if it weren't preceded by a moment of foul bathroom humor that serves no purpose whatsoever. It's like getting to eat something delicious after you just ate something that tasted awful - it's hard to enjoy it fully if you've still got an awful taste left in there. But that's not my biggest quibble, because the film actually features something that's even more unnecessary. I'm all for outrageous/inappropriate humor, but there's a scene that makes a joke at the expense of the documentary CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (my all-time favorite documentary), and the reference is simply awful. It makes little sense, and even worse, it's touching on subject matter that simply shouldn't be made the butt of a joke. It's like making a joke out of a scene from SCHINDLER'S LIST or THE WAR ZONE. My third problem with the movie is that, as great as it is to see Sigourney Weaver in the film (for obvious reasons that become even better when the line "Get away from her, you bitch!" is delivered), her appearance in the film's final moments as the big, bad villain is curiously unsatisfying. She gets dispatched too easily - we should've gotten to enjoy much more of her exploits as the film's chief "bad guy" and to see her wreak much more havoc than what we get to see.
Still, PAUL holds up really well, thanks in large part to how incredibly amusing the title character's irreverence is. This is the classic case of a movie in which you could've just had its four characters exchange witty banter with each other on the RV for the entire running time, without being chased by police or government agents, and I would've still had a fun time. That's as much a testament to Frost and Pegg's sharp script as it is to Mottola's continued success at mixing sweetness with offensive humor. PAUL may not be as refined a film as his two prior outings, but the fact that he's clearly still interested in catering to us "uncool" people is more than enough to make me look forward to his future projects.