Let’s set things straight at the top of this review: though it stars the duo behind the much-loved genre send-ups of cops (“Hot Fuzz”) and zombies (“Shaun of the Dead”), do not expect the exact same payoff for their latest outing, “Paul.”
“Paul’s” leads Simon Pegg and Nick Frost still posesses the same chemistry that helped cement “Shaun” and “Fuzz” in the modern comedic pantheon, but the addition of director Greg Mattola alters the equation. It’s not for the better or worse, he just brings with him a style that changes the scope, cadance and rhythm.
Science fiction and road movies are the genres up for ribbing in “Paul.” Pegg and Frost are Graeme and Clive, two good-natured nerds who are living their dream of attending Comic-Con, followed by a chaser of RV travels through alien “hotspots” throughout the Midwest. It starts off rather timid, as though Pegg and Frost (who also wrote the screenplay), were almost too cautious to sting the very crowd who bestow geek love on the pair in real life.
But the numerous obvious gags soon fade away once “Paul’s” eponymous star takes center stage, and things really ramp up. Voiced by Seth Rogan (and, for all intents and purposes’ is almost every Rogan comedic character), Paul is the stoner’s “E.T.” He’s randy (not above “pressing ham” against the car window), ribald, and does not need a spacecraft to “blast off.” In “Shaun” and “Fuzz,” both leads were at odds with one another, but are best pals here, so when Paul arrives, he delivers some much-needed conflict. And Rogan, content with becoming the Cheech Marin of this generation does more than his share to help stir the pot.
The film takes all the obvious routes — from eluding inept-but-persistent Feds and covert officers (Bill Hader and Joe Truglio, the former, and Jason Bateman, the latter), Paul’s ability to regenerate and heal with touch, but it does so with such affection for its source material (“Close Encounters,” “E.T.,” “Alien” etc.), it makes these scenes fresh with a knowing wink and grin.
For lovers of the genre, there are countless in-jokes peppered throughout to satisfy, and director Mottola manages to ground the film, even considering the film’s outlandish subject matter. The director, who helmed the sweetly nostalgic “Adventureland,” brings the same delicate focus on friendship and makeshift family.
Perhaps because the film is more singularly focused (the Speilbergian Mythology of aliens is the one to which this film most closely aligns), many may fault “Paul” for not broadening its net as widely as Pegg and Frost did with “Shaun” and “Fuzz.” But all feels right in “Paul’s” universe, right down to its final scene that is as touching as it is amusing.
“Paul” is a head trip with spaceships, and is accessible enough to let everyone on board to enjoy the ride.