By: Addison Wylie
With Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, audiences feel comfortable with actors/screenwriters Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. They know that when those two individuals are paired with each other, laughs are guaranteed. The two have worked alongside Director Edgar Wright on the aforementioned comedies and Wright’s direction and style added to the timing of the comedy. With Paul though, Wright isn’t directing. This time, Director Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) helms. Mottola is a very skilled director and Paul is a very successful comedy. However, not comparing Wright’s work with Mottola’s and looking at the film as a separate project for Pegg and Frost, Paul does have areas where it lacks.
Graeme, played by Simon Pegg, and Clive, played by Nick Frost, are two science fiction aficionados on their way back from the San Diego Comic Con. On their way back home, the two decide to visit areas that have a history with extra-terrestrials. As the friends pass by Area 51 and experience a car crash, an alien appears from the darkness. His name is Paul. Paul, played and voiced by Seth Rogan, has been on Earth for quite some time and is looking to get back to his home planet. He hopes to meet his goal with the help of Graeme and Clive. The two agree to take Paul in and another road trip commences. Angry CIA agents, explosions, nerdy in-jokes, and slapstick ensues.
The script, written by Pegg and Frost, is great; packing in lots of laughs with references riddled throughout. The jokes that work best are the ones incorporating the cast’s chemistry. As mentioned before, Pegg and Frost have incredible comedic timing and chemistry. If the film was a two-man show, it would’ve sufficed. When Paul is added to the equation, the timing and the chemistry is still there but the script milks every possibility concerning the question “if you and your friend met an alien, what would you do?”. Just when the audience feels that the content with the three pals may be running thin, Kristen Wiig’s Ruth Buggs shows up and balances everything out again. All four performers get along great and are able to play off each others reactions and exchanges quite well. This is where Mottola’s strengths come into play. Mottola knows exactly how to make his actors feel comfortable while providing them with motives. I don’t know if he’s conducting trust exercises in rehearsals or just treating everyone like friends instead of hired actors but whatever he’s doing is working in volumes.
In a film like this that is constantly moving, Greg Mottola does have trouble keeping up with the energy the material and his cast has. His direction works best in laid back environments where characters can essentially have a conversation with each other and talk about topics that you wouldn’t expect people to talk so honestly about. For example, there’s a scene that is very funny where Ruth and Paul are discussing evolution and religious beliefs. As you can see here, it’s something that doesn’t exactly leap off the page but when Wiig and Rogan are going at each other, the outcome the scene is building up towards is worthwhile. Mottola fumbles with action sequences. His easygoing direction doesn’t match the insanity and, thus, the scenes feel unbalanced. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher doesn’t help here either. Sher knows how to keep a consistent look to the film but at the same time, nothing visually stimulating jumps out to the audience; outside of the Paul creation.
Paul is a very slick looking character who is very funny. With past motion capture performances, we’ve seen actors bury themselves deep inside the character in order to manifest appropriate movements. With Paul, Rogan essentially plays himself. While that sounds lazy, it works in this scenario. By having Paul look relaxed and have mellow reactions, this extra-terrestrial figure is more relatable to the average Joe. Paul is never firing off excessive catch phrases or doing dopey things to make an audience laugh. By having Paul act very human-esque, the surreal nature of the character and how he plays “the straight man” makes Rogan’s line readings that much more humorous.
There are a lot of places where the film could definitely improve but, as I said, Paul is very successful and meets all of its goals. It managed to make the theatre laugh, it threw interesting characters our way (including a very odd but enticing performance from Blythe Danner), and it moved at a very brisk pace. Paul doesn’t reinvent the wheel of comedy but with the help of a smart script and a talented cast, it does do a good job with generating plenty of laughs.