It may be the role that Seth Rogen was born to play: the voice of a sarcastic, crude, and fun-loving extraterrestrial who goes by the name of the dog that he accidentally smooshed when his spacecraft crashed on the planet Earth.
That incident happened in 1947, and for more than 60 years the title character of Paul has lived on the government’s dime in the vicinity of Area 51 — the top-secret military installation where, as any self-respecting UFologist will tell you, the United States has supposedly long kept hidden its knowledge of aliens and their technology.
Though Paul is given many of the best lines, the movie is really centered on Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost), two nearly 40-something best friends from England who have come to America to fulfill their longtime dream of attending the annual Comic-Con in San Diego and taking a road trip of the best-known UFO-related sites in the Southwest. Graeme and Clive are a pair of man-boys, stuck in the same arrested adolescence as the characters that Rogen plays onscreen (as in Knocked Up or The Green Hornet). So when Paul comes crashing into their lives on a deserted Nevada highway one night, he fits right in with their slacker lifestyles. The CGI effects are nicely done and leave the impression that Paul is actually present, that we aren’t just watching the actors interact with a cartoon.
Graeme and Clive quickly agree to hide Paul onboard their rented RV as government agents give pursuit. What makes the movie so much fun is how well Pegg and Frost (who wrote the script) know the science-fiction films on which they’re riffing and what clear affection they have for the genre. It’s the same feat they accomplished in their earlier work, zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead and hard-boiled cop spoof Hot Fuzz (Pegg was a co-writer of both, Frost in the cast).
Paul makes good use of the wealth of available science fiction references. The repeated visual allusions to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. become even more enjoyable thanks to a brilliant little flashback scene in which we see the alien working as a creative consultant to a certain famous film director. Throw in Star Trek (Graeme and Clive re-enact Captain Kirk’s fight with the Gorn) and Star Wars (Clive has a fetish for women dressed as Ewoks), and you’ve got a movie for which I pretty much represent the target demographic.
The comedy sometimes tries a little too hard in its attempts to get raunchy (the movie earns its R rating) or outrageous. Did the special agent (Jason Bateman) chasing the escaped alien need to taste the unknown liquid (it’s urine) in a puddle on the ground? Is it all that funny to hear a septuagenarian (Blythe Danner) whose house has exploded express her greatest concern for the “weed” she just lost? The answer is no, in both cases. Fortunately there’s enough else that works that even the failed moments like these can be overlooked.
The movie’s congenial tone helps too. There’s plenty of poking fun at people like Graeme and Clive, with their socially inept ways, but it never comes off as nasty or mean-spirited. What may seem mean-spirited to some is the depiction of the small-town Americans that Graeme and Clive encounter during their trip: They all seem to be either gun-loving rednecks or small-minded religious nuts.
But anyone offended by these representations should learn to take life less seriously. This is, after all, a movie about a pot-smoking spaceman.