Ever get the feeling a film’s been made just for you? That’s the way I felt about Shaun Of The Dead when I first saw it. It hit me at exactly the right time. In my teens I was in the relative twilight of my serious film watching career, and I’d spend a lot of time working through the critical canon. One weekend would be the Scorseses, the next would be the Kubricks.
In the year leading up to the release of Shaun Of The Dead, I’d broadened out into the cult classics, and had watched An American Werewolf In London, Dawn Of The Dead, Suspiria, and the Evil Dead trilogy for the first time in a very short time period. So, when Shaun Of The Dead arrived, my tiny geek brain was completely primed to be utterly blown away by it. And it was.
Then when Hot Fuzz was released, I was so excited to find yet another film that scratched an itch I had that I didn’t realise needed to be scratched: an affectionate and impeccably constructed parody-cum-love letter to the brainlessly sadistic and violent action bromances that I would stay up and watch (heavily edited, of course) on late-night ITV as an excitable, hormone-addled 14-year-old boy. Of course, it turns out that, many years later, there’s still a hormone-addled 14-year-old boy inside of me.
Yeah, there’s probably a better way of saying that.
So, why, in the lead up to Paul, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s first film together since Hot Fuzz, have I felt so chilly towards it?
Is it because I don’t have the affection for the genre its parodying (alien movies) that I do towards eighties action and zombie horror? Is it because the trailers and advance clips have all been decidedly underwhelming? Is it because Edgar Wright wasn’t involved? Is it because Simon Pegg’s post-Hot Fuzz film career has been a mixed bag? Is it because the premise of two nerds discovering a wisecracking alien and embarking on a road trip sounds like an idea so banal that Rob Schneider would probably turn it down? It’s probably a combination all of the above, to be honest.
Maybe this litany of quibbles meant that I lowered my expectations to such a degree that it was always going to be the case that the film exceed them. But even with that in mind, in all honestly, I can say I had a really great time with Paul.
If you’re not familiar with the premise of the film by now, it’s this: two comic book nerds (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) on their way back from the San Diego Comic-Con decide to embark on a tour of reputed UFO crash sites. Whilst on their travels, they encounter Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an alien who has escaped from Area 51 and is looking to return to his home planet via a pick-up point all the way over on the East Coast. Paul hitches a ride in the boys’ RV as they make their way cross-country, whilst dodging FBI agents, religious fundamentalists and crazed hillbillies.
Let’s get one thing straight, first of all. It’s not in the same league as Shaun Of The Dead or Hot Fuzz. The film references aren’t as sharply implemented, the character development is distinctly shallower, with the emotional wallop of Shaun Of The Dead , in particular, being completely absent, and the action scenes definitely miss Edgar Wright’s orange Smartie-addled kinecticism, and feel a little bit underdone as a result.
On a purely laugh-by-laugh basis, however, it’s easily the equal of the ‘Blood and Ice Cream’ films. The phrase laugh-a-minute is often used, yet rarely appropriate, but I’d certainly say it’s applicable in the case of Paul. From the moment our heroes walk on screen accompanied by a couple of orcs from Lord Of The Rings, to the nicely understated final line that undercuts the bombastic finale in typical Pegg/Frost fashion, there’s barely any downtime between the chuckles.
After watching a fair amount of average-to-terrible comedies in recent months (thanks, Den Of Geek!), it was a real pleasure to watch a comedy film with a script that is as impressively tight as Paul‘s. There are barely any clunkers in the film’s 105 minute running time, and all of the best elements of Pegg’s previous scripts – the running gags, the wordplay, and yes, the film references – are all present, correct, and brilliantly funny.
The film is R-rated, but never exploits its adult rating by including crude and wilfully offensive content just for the sake of it. It’s also a pleasure to see a Hollywood comedy that packs its supporting cast out with funny people (including Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, David Koechner, Bill Hader, and Jeffrey Tambor), and then actually gives them funny things to say, rather than saving up all of the best gags for the lead players.
If Paul didn’t actually work as a character, then the film would be in big trouble, and I’ll admit that when he first steps out of the shadows and speaks with Seth Rogen’s voice, I instinctively thought, “This is never going to work.” However, due to some impressively emotive CGI (using a Serkis-esque mo-cap performance) and some good writing (Paul is probably the best developed character in the film), it wasn’t long before I came around, and Paul is as well realised as you would ever want a foul-mouthed wisecracking alien to be.
Of course, most people won’t be going to see this for Paul. They’ll be going for Pegg and Frost and their uniquely geeky brand of awkward homo-eroticism. They are both still immensely watchable, and as a double act they have a chummy chemistry that is pretty much unmatched by any screen comedy duo right now.
One thing that I think many people may accuse Pegg and Frost of is that they are playing it safe, that they’ve begun playing to the gallery with some of the more self-consciously ‘geeky’ stuff. Admittedly, they’ve always been heavy on the film references/fan service, but it’s a little more on the nose here than in their previous outings.
Put it this way: pretty much everyone who reads this site will be extremely familiar with all of the films that are parodied in Paul. It’s not like it descends into Friedberg and Seltzer territory, but it is a bit less subtle than we’ve come to expect from them. And while they’re as charming and funny as ever here, they have essentially been playing variations of the same characters for three films and a TV series now. It’s hard to say whether they will be able to keep it going as it is for many more films.
As a result, it will be interesting to see where they take their double act next, firstly in Spielberg’s Tintin and then in The World’s End, the third part in Wright/Pegg’s ‘Blood and Ice Cream’ trilogy.
To paraphrase Nigel Tufnel, though, that’s just nitpicking, isn’t it?
Paul is one of the funniest comedies to hit cinemas in a while, with an enviable gag:hit ratio, great performances and some surprisingly great FX work. Time will tell if the Pegg/Frost double act has the mileage to become one of the great screen double acts, but right now, they’re three for three.