“Paul” comes from the team that brought us “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.”
Or most of the team: Writer-stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are still aboard, but director Edgar Wright has been replaced by Greg Mottola. And that substitution makes all the difference.
Not that Mottola doesn’t know his way around a joke: He proved that he did with “Superbad” and “Adventureland.” But he lacks the slightly nastier edge that Wright brought to the work. Watching “Paul” makes you wonder whether Wright wasn’t the one who kicked those films up the notch needed to give them their bite.
Because, while “Paul” has its moments of inspiration, it seems a lot more warm-and-fuzzy than is healthy for its laugh production. While there are funny moments in this film, they’re rarely as out-loud funny as you wish. Instead, “Paul” seems to spin its wheels at key moments, rather than find traction.
Pegg and Frost (the name of a comedy team if I’ve ever heard one) play Graeme and Clive, two Brit fanboys who have made the pilgrimage to San Diego’s Comic-Con, the mecca for their ilk. They even have the opportunity to meet Adam Shadowchild (Jeffrey Tambor), a superstar fantasy writer – and a character who seems primed for something bigger in the film. But he disappears, never to be seen again, though his name becomes the subject of a running but unfunny gag about the titles of this author’s obviously dreadful books.
Sated with Comic-Con, they now hop into an RV to cruise the American Southwest, to take photos of themselves at famous alien hot spots: Area 51, Roswell, and the like. But they wind up on the run from a pair of rednecks (David Koechner and Jesse Plemons), after dinging their pickup with the RV.
Convinced they’re being chased by these yahoos, our heroes speed off, only to witness the crash of a large black sedan. They wind up giving a lift to its occupant, an extraterrestrial whose name is Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen).
Paul has been a guest of the U.S. government for a half-century, until he figured out that he was, in fact, a prisoner. Now he’s discovered that the government is going to kill him in the name of science. So he’s sent a signal to his home planet, in hopes of being picked up.
But government agents are on his trail, led by a wittily no-nonsense Jason Bateman and including a pair of dimwit sidekicks (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio). Their government overlord, as it were, is Sigourney Weaver and she’s out for blood, or whatever it is that courses through an extraterrestrial’s veins.
The rest of the film is a combination road trip and chase, though a low-speed pursuit, given how the RV trundles across the landscape. Along the way, the trio picks up a female passenger – a creationist played hilariously by Kristen Wiig. Well, hilarity is relative; I find Wiig a very funny presence no matter what she does, though here it’s mostly confined to inept cursing, once her mind is opened by a close encounter with Paul.
But the action isn’t all that active until the very end – and the jeopardy is never particularly threatening. The jokes, meanwhile, are weak or barely formed at points where Pegg and Frost usually excel.
Ultimately, it’s a lot of effort for minimal return. “Paul” ends up as a movie you smile at more often than you laugh – but even then, there’s not much return on the time you invest.