Paul (2011 movie) review…

Paul (2011 movie) review after the break…

Paul (2011 movie) review…

Comedy teams are not a new innovation; They have been around for as long as vaudeville itself and probably a lot longer then that. There are, of course, the classic comedy teams of Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, George Burns with Gracie and the Smothers Brothers (just to name a few).

Only history will tell us if the current comedy duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost will eventually be worthy with keeping company with such elite comedy teams of the past. So far, this team has had a fairly successful run – Shaun of the Dead (2004) revitalized the moribund genre of horror-comedy while follow-up Hot Fuzz’s (2007) comedic homage to trashy action movies managed to provide both smart laughs and tense action.

Physically, Simon Pegg is the modern day straight man Bud Abbott while Nick Frost assumes the role of comedian Lou Costello. The roles are a bit more blurred in their actual duties but not by much – Pegg is far more the straight man then the comedian and Frost rarely strays from being both the instigator as well as the recipient of the comedy.

In “Paul,” a 2011 comedy, the comedy duo play a pair of likeable English chaps who travel to Comic-Con, a massive pop culture convention renown for being a Mecca for Man-Boys who grow older but refuse to grow up. After the convention, the pair decide to pay a visit to the reputed “Area 51,” a place with the unfortunate reputation of housing secret alien space crafts and possible alien survivors. Their trip is rather lackluster until a car in front of them careens out of control, crashing along the side of the road. What emerges from the crash is Paul, a bona-fide space alien who resembles every 1950’s alien stereotype – Big head, large eyes, small body, long fingers, gray complexion. Paul, though, is not your average alien – He knows modern lingo and if you give him a beer, odds are that he’ll chug it down and then let out a belch no less then that of a 300 lb barfly.

Pegg and Frost must now help the alien escape the planet, picking up a “born-again” woman who’s conversion from her strict religious upbringing to a more liberal philosophy after meeting the alien is quite a bit awkward. the journey to the alien’s destination is not without difficulty, pursued by federal agents, southern rednecks and the born-again woman’s persistent father.

“Paul” wants to be every bit the classic that “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” are becoming to contemporary cinema; Yet there is an elusive element missing in “Paul” that held the aforementioned other movies together. It’s not the jokes; “Paul” has plenty of those, ranging from disappointingly awkward to extremely amusing. It’s not the cast; Frost and Pegg are well cast as the bumbling English duo. To be fair, the rest of the cast was not hired for their subtlety, with most of the supporting roles played more for slapstick then the usually reserved English humor in the previous two films. It’s not the story; Such storyline staples as “Helping alien escape,” “Overcoming stereotypes,” “Learning to Grow” and “Sacrificing” are all here in full view, sometimes to eye-rolling obviousness.

What is missing from “Paul” is the difference between a comedic story and a bunch of jokes thrown into a story. In brief, the story simply has no resonance to it; A lot of the jokes are simply “one-off” jokes that have little if any pay-off at story’s end. That’s not to write that the jokes themselves are bad; Some of the jokes are great and are appropriate given the theme of the movie. For instance, our characters enter a bar at one point to the tune of the Cantina music from “Star Wars 4: A New Hope.” It’s a subtle joke but definitely one that brings a smirk to many a geek’s face. Another fairly successful moment is where the alien must pretend to be a statue while a federal agent inspects the alien. Again, that’s a great subtle moment that brings laughs given the context that the situation resides in.

Yet the movie always feels slightly off-kilter compared to the two previous works. The jokes simply don’t fit the story and the story wasn’t written to fully accommodate the jokes. Sailors in a bar simply to have sailors in a bar is slightly cute but… It doesn’t work. Sailors in a bar simply so that they may participate in a bar fight might have been funny in another movie but, here in this movie about space aliens, it doesn’t have the same result. A sub-plot about a religious woman suddenly adopting significantly more liberal viewpoints might have been funny for a television comedy skit but it just doesn’t add anything meaningful to this story. That whole sub-plot is just an attempt on some cheap laughs at the woman’s expense. And Agent Zoil’s first name? Are you kidding me?

While Frost and Pegg absolve themselves with their comedy, the rest of the cast is left to fend for themselves without great results. Best left unscathed is a minor turn by Jeffrey Tambor as a thoroughly disinterested science fiction author and Jason Bateman as the semi-serious Agent Zoil. Faring far less better is pretty much everyone else, from the increasingly brazen Agent Haggard to the “The Rent Is Due” stunt casting of Sigourney Weaver as “The Big Guy.” Really? What was the point of that?

“Paul” could have been so much more – A damning condemnation of the Comic-Con culture to a revealing justification of the Comic-Con culture. The movie could have been an appraisal of humanity’s addiction to a future it will never have, to how space aliens have become a modern religion (ala “angels with spaceships”) compared with classic religion. Imagine if the conclusion had been rewritten with Paul running around an actual Comic-Con, in the one area of the world where he’d fit right in without anyone knowing. Imagine a movie with a bitter, cynical alien who thought of humans as nothing more then intelligent ants and learns that, perhaps, humans aren’t such bad primitive creatures after all. Imagine a movie with a burnt out sci-fi author who finally meets a genuine space alien and rediscovers that reality is far more fascinating then any fanciful space adventure he could ever write.

Time has glossed over Abbott and Costello’s failures while sharpening the clarity of their successes. Gone are the memories that Abbott and Costello went through a rough few years where their movies were, by no means, received well by contemporary audiences (and still aren’t regarded warmly by today’s audiences). Absent from most peoples’ memories is the occasional bitter infighting that eventually led to the team breaking up, winding up financially broke as a result. One aspect of Abbott and Costello’s success never seems fully appreciated; That they were far more successful with some directors then with others.

Sometimes, a great team needs an equally great leader in order to succeed. In this case, gone from “Paul” is the director and writer of the previous two films, Edgar Wright. The loss could not be more stark – Yes, there are jokes in “Paul” and some of them are funny. Yes, the acting is OK. Yes, there is a story. Yet it is hard not to see that “Paul” is a story with jokes and not the comedic stories that “Hot Fuzz” and “Shaun of the Dead” are. In a movie about pop culture references, perhaps Pegg & Frost buried perhaps their best joke yet; That “Paul” is their “Return of the Jedi” movie – OK, but not anywhere near the classic that the previous two were. Think about it… Both movies have Ewoks in them. Coincidence? I think not.

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