Paul, it should be noted up-front, is not the third installment in the so-called Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy featuring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, though there are indeed servings of both. Note the one key missing element: Edgar Wright, who directed and co-wrote with Pegg both the 2004 zom-com Shaun of the Dead and ’07’s Hot Fuzz, in which Pegg and Frost re-enacted at least one scene from every buddy-cop and Chuck Norris movie ever made. Greg Mottola instead directs Paul, and he’s an escapee from Judd Apatow’s stable, having done several Undeclared episodes leading up to his Superbad night out with Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, whose Arrested Development Mottola also worked on.
Consider this the ultimate modern-comedy crossover, as damp a dork’s dream as when Superman teamed up with Spider-Man or when Captain Kirk met Captain Picard in Star Trek: Generations, among the approximately 382 films referenced in Paul. But Wright’s absence is notable and, moreover, noticeable—for reasons so subtle they almost don’t matter, but which are so evident that they finally render Paul lightweight and less than essential, unlike Shaun and Hot Fuzz, which entertain no matter how many times you see them. It’s the difference between parody and tribute—between Spaceballs and Galaxy Quest.
Shaun is nothing less than a canonical zombie film; Hot Fuzz is a terrific shoot-’em-up-stack-’em-up. They’re top entries in their respective genres, not mere nods of reverence to the tower of reels upon which they were constructed. Paul, however, is a sci-fi movie spoof, half its dialogue consisting of lines lifted from Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aliens, Back to the Future, and all the other ’70s and ’80s sci-fi comfort-food staples fed to growing fanboys back then. And its plot is pure E.T.: An alien who has phoned home needs the help of humans to meet his ride.
But in this case, the alien is a shirtless, foul-mouthed, dope-smoking ass-flasher named Paul, voiced by Seth Rogen. Paul looks like every alien throughout popular culture— bulbous noggin, wide-screen eyes, rail-thin frame—because, as it turns out, he’s the original pop-cult prototype. As he explains, after he crash-landed on earth in 1947 and wound up in government captivity, Paul’s likeness was marketed via moving pictures and literature in order to get people used to his image, should there ever be an actual alien invasion. And he’s no E.T. rip-off, man; that’s his life story, down to his gig as Steven Spielberg’s uncredited consultant.
Frost and Pegg (Scotty!) are Paul’s ideal chaperones: They are, respectively, stalled-out sci-fi novelist Clive Gollings and his illustrator/best friend, Graeme Willy, traveling across the “extraterrestrial highway” in the Southwest desert in an RV as part of a holiday that begins at Comic-Con in San Diego. Who better to escort an extraterrestrial cross-country than nerds who want to believe (speaking of: Mulder and Scully were also Paul’s invention)?
They’re chased by Men in Black, among them Jason Bateman (as Agent Lorenzo Zoil, one among dozens of cheap gags) and Bill Hader, who receive their instructions from a faceless voice on the other end of the phone. (It’s Sigourney Weaver, which spoils nothing unless you’ve never heard her speak.) Along the way, the trio encounters a True Believer of a different stripe: Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), a cycloptic Creationist who runs an RV park, with her devout daddy, in the middle of nowhere. Wiig’s the revelation here: A screeching sketch artist, she brings rare depth and genuine warmth to the thankless, one-dimensional role of a God-fearing Bible-thumper. Her scenes with Paul—when he reveals to her the size of the universe or introduces her to the simple pleasures of a well-used expletive—are more rewarding than those that the alien shares with Pegg and Frost. Only then does the movie transcend parody and stop being a game of Spot the Reference, becoming its own singular creation.
That’s not to dismiss Paul’s simple pleasures—if nothing else, its fondness for sex and drugs and four-letter words rescues its references from the soft hands of wee ones into which they’ve fallen of late. (Sci-fi cons, for those who haven’t attended one recently, are as filled with three-foot-tall Darth Vaders as they are adult-size models.) This is the smart-ass stoner’s E.T., the movie the fanboy parent won’t be able to hand down like some tattered, squeaky-clean memento to their action-figure-collecting kids. It’s just not quite right without Wright, who could have helped Frost and Pegg stuff Mel Brooks back into their Han Solo Underoos.