Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2011

Close encounter, but no cigar

Intermittently enjoyable 'Paul' spins its wheels trying to figure out what to do with itself

Paul
Universal Pictures
Director: Greg Mottola
Screenplay: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Sigourney Weaver and the voice of Seth Rogen
Rated R / 1 hour, 44 minutes
Opened March 18, 2011
(out of four)

In Paul we see the road movie prototype on its last legs. OK, OK, so we know that already - the road movie has been on its last legs for what seems like forever now. But Paul unfortunately does little to dispel the notion that it's a dead (or dying) subgenre. We may not have seen the "alien hitches a ride with a pair of nerds in an RV" scenario, but it sure feels like we have.

Like many road movies before it, Paul starts out simply with its principle characters on the road, and complicates matters little by little as things move along. Run-ins with comically sinister characters, misunderstandings, high crimes and misdemeanors, arguments, fights, chases, what have you.

In the case of our boys - that's Graeme (Simon Pegg), Clive (Nick Frost) and the runaway extraterrestrial Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) - those complications are as follows: a government agent named Zoil (Jason Bateman), who's trying to track Paul down by any means necessary; a pair of bumbling FBI field officers (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) aiding the search; two rednecks whose pickup truck Grame and Clive damaged at a roadside diner; and a Bible-toting RV park proprietor (John Carroll Lynch) chasing after his daughter Ruth (Kristen Wiig), who has either run away or been kidnaped by our road-tripping trio, depending on whom you ask.

Oh, and there's also the faceless government executive (Sigourney Weaver) who seems to be pulling Zoil's strings and is intent on taking Paul out no matter what it takes, and a surprise (ish) extra character who joins the fracas in the third act.

All those elements are in place, but the film never figures out how to utilize them. And in some cases doesn't even seem to have much interest in doing so. The peripheral characters show up periodically, as if just to remind us that they exist, but without ever really intruding on anything until the plot requires that they absolutely must.

Every character except the three leads is almost a throwaway. The Bible-toting father barely registers. The film cuts away from the bumbling FBI agents just as they start to get interesting. Bateman is, once again, given far too little screen time. The way the script is constructed, one complication builds upon the next, which builds upon the next - yet the story never seems to gain any real momentum. It's too laid-back, and too satisfied with being so. With all that's going on in the story, we never feel the gradual thrust the screenplay requires - the pulsing energy that could slam us into chaos, or farce, or anything in between.

I've admired director Greg Mottola's past work - from the smash hit Superbad to the under-seen indie dramedy Adventureland. But it's clear, at this point at least, he's not of the same caliber as the best directors working in comedy right now - Edgar Wright (Pegg's collaborator on Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Spaced), Judd Apatow and David Gordon Green among them.

Where the film succeeds is in the effortless rapport between Pegg and Frost (who also penned the script together) and their interactions with Paul (Rogen, giving another in a string of fine voice performances following The Spiderwick Chronicles, Horton Hears a Who! and Monsters vs. Aliens). It's with those three characters, within that dingy RV, that the film feels most comfortable. Outside the confines of the RV? Well, that's another story. Both the writing and direction seem confused about what to do with everything else, and as a result too much is miscalculated. Like, for instance, the dramatic character appearance late in the film that is treated like a Big Reveal, when in fact no surprise has been revealed at all.

This is one of those instances where we see a really, really good comedy hidden somewhere underneath a subpar comedy. It certainly isn't lacking in fertile material - and the filmmakers know the ground they're covering extremely well. Even when the constant sci-fi and pop-culture references seem a bit gratuitous, we appreciate them anyway, if only for their loveable geekiness.

That's the thing about Paul - it wants to be loved. It wants to be loved as much as the sci-fi films and comics and sagas to which it pays such adoring homage. And I wanted to love it, too. But as earnest and admirable an attempt as the film is, it can never quite keep its footing. In some ways, Paul deserves an adoring audience of its own - but that audience probably deserves a better movie.

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