More Alf Than E.T.

Paul raises a playful middle finger to the sci-fi genre

Paul, the latest (and, perhaps, weakest) offbeat comedy from British comedy duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), is ostensibly about a rogue alien, but true fanboys beware: This is a buddy comedy masquerading as science fiction. In other words, expect few probing questions into the existence of extraterrestrial life and more jokes about anal probes.

Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) are two sci-fi buffs from England who’ve come to America to attend San Diego’s Comic-Con, then drive across the West in a rented RV, visiting all of the famous sites of UFO folklore. The trip starts off well enough—despite being mistaken for a gay couple on their honeymoon by their hotel room-service waiter, the duo meet their idol, a science fiction writer named Adam Shadowchild (Jeffrey Tambor)—but before long they’re on the run from a pair of rednecks whose pickup they’ve dented after a skirmish at a roadside diner. After speeding, panicked, along a desolate stretch of desert highway, Graeme and Clive are relieved to discover that the car that’s been tailing them is not the hillbilly mobile they feared. But when the car veers off the road and crashes, they discover that it’s worse: Suddenly they’re saddled with a chain-smoking, cargo short-wearing, potty-mouthed alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen).

Paul is nothing like the gentle, naive E.T. (well, except for his candy preferences). No, despite a pair of big, blue (albeit somewhat reptilian) Bambi eyes, Paul is more akin to a stoner, frat-boy version of Alf. He makes himself invisible only to reappear on the dashboard sans pants. He heals a dead bird only to eat it. He is the Oscar Madison to Graeme and Clive’s Felix Unger—and Graeme and Clive are a far cry from proper English gentlemen to begin with. But the three soon settle into a comfortable rapport … or, at least, as comfortable as they can get knowing that they’re on the lam from a mysterious federal agent named Zoil (Jason Bateman) dead set on re-capturing Paul, who has escaped from the government’s clutches. At an RV park, the gang meets a half-blind Christian fundamentalist named Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig) and, long story short, ends up kidnapping her. Pretty soon they’re being chased not only by Agent Zoil but also by Ruth’s bible-beating dad and a pair of slapstick-y dimwit cops (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio). Hilarity ensues. Well, sometimes anyway.

Overall, Paul is a good, solid comedy that’s smarter than 95 percent of the schlock that gets churned out by Hollywood these days. But it’s not great. Anyone who’s seen and loved Pegg’s and Frost’s previous films is bound to be at least a little bit disappointed, and here’s why: Helmed by Superbad’s Greg Mottola, Paul panders a bit to the teenage boy crowd. The two primary sources of laughs are the increasingly creative use of obscenities by Wiig’s character and the suggestion (made at least half a dozen times throughout the movie) that Graeme and Clive might be gay. Rogen does much of the comedic heavy lifting, and while he’s funny he’s also become kind of predictable (on the upside, if you like ball jokes, you’ll love Paul.) Pegg and Frost are a gifted comedy duo, and it’s a shame they’ve given so much of the good stuff to their CGI costar. There’s not a lot of subtlety or quirkiness to the humor (save for a golden blink-and-you’ll-miss it Capturing the Friedmans documentary reference), and its broadness takes away from its charm. Finally, the roster of big name stars who appear in cameo roles (Jane Lynch! Blythe Danner! Sigourney Weaver! Steven Speilberg’s voice!) only serves bloat an already supersize ensemble cast.

That said, there are plenty of less enjoyable ways to spend 100 minutes with an alien. Just ask John Hurt.

Paul (R) ★★★☆☆

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