In the eighties, the writer Stephen Schiff covered the making of the hotly anticipated film Howard the Duck for Vanity Fair, and when he told people on the set he’d read the script and didn’t think Howard’s witticisms were all that witty, they said, “You have to imagine them coming from a duck.” We know how that turned out. The new comedy Paul, from the Brit team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, is like a Howard the Duck that works, partly because this talking alien, the title character, smokes dope and drops four-letter words and boasts about the size of his sexual equipment. As in the filthy-minded Bad Santa, the R rating makes the difference. When Frost’s sci-fi geek asks whether he can understand Paul because the latter is using a Star Trek style “universal translator,” the scrawny extraterrestrial with the giant brainpan and the voice of Seth Rogen says, “I’m speaking English, you fucking idiot.” The F-bomb improves things exponentially.
Paul is happily marinated in geek-slob culture. On the road following San Diego’s ComicCon (Obnoxious Fanboy Central), the two unsuccessful sci-fi nerds, illustrator Graeme Willy (Pegg) and author Clive Gollings (Frost), pick up the jaded alien after he crashes a car near the site of a famed desert UFO encounter. He’s on the lam from the government, which has held him since 1947—although not in isolation. He has had, he explains, an incalculable effect on popular culture, especially via phone conversations with Steven Spielberg. The government, though, doesn’t appreciate his contributions and now want to segment his brain. He’s being chased by men in black (if not Men in Black), led by Jason Bateman with Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio close behind, on orders of an unseen woman with a steely voice familiar to aliens and avatars the world over.
Directed by Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland), Paul is the third and least original of the Pegg-Frost features, but it’s still a lot funnier than most films of its ilk. Although it’s a broad takeoff on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., it’s not in the superficial Scary Movie mode. Pegg and Frost’s Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (both directed by Edgar Wright) were more than loving parodies of George A. Romero and Bad Boys II; they were also nifty satires of capitalist-generated narcolepsy and provincial English culture’s more fascistic impulses. Paul has a larger agenda, too, but the strokes are cruder. Pegg and Frost aim to extricate the E.T. mythos from Spielberg’s mysticism and its attendant religiosity. Like many of their countrymen, they fear the American anti-Darwin, pro-creationist brand of fundamentalism, which means their alien must set a brainwashed, one-eyed trailer-park gal (Kristen Wiig) straight on evolution and the nonexistence of a Higher Power. Enlightened, she spews obscenities and wants sex now.
It’s fun to see Pegg and Frost appropriate and then demolish Spielberg’s starry-eyed imagery, but Mottola’s direction is too down-to-earth. Paul could have used Edgar Wright’s exuberance, his surreal mastery of pop-culture tropes, his Spielbergian openness. (Wright was busy making Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World.) There’s also a sour vibe in the scenes in which Frost’s Clive expresses hostility toward Paul for interrupting his bonding trip with Graeme, previously the fount of many gay jokes: You’d think the arrival of a talking alien would more than compensate for the letdown. The satirist should be careful never to cross the line into being a killjoy.
Well, as Paul might say, “Don’t be such a pussy critic.” The CGI alien is very well articulated, and Rogen is a virtuoso at mixing motormouthed rudeness with a hint of tenderness to take off the edge. Wiig does wonders with her spotty material: Good and bad, she sells it. In the climax, when most of the characters—including Blythe Danner, lyrically aggrieved, as a woman alienated from the world by a past alien encounter—converge to await the inevitable mother ship, Paul at last mingles mockery and wonderment. Finally, we’re over the moon.