Thursday, 3 March 2011

Film #23 Paul

"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."

So wrote Charles Mackay, 19th century journalist and author of the legendary Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds. He was about 150 years to early for Paul, but no doubt he would have reiterated his sentiment when surrounded by an audience of moviegoers clapping and guffawing at a series of sub-My Family stoner gags as if they were watching Airplane for the very first time.

Ok, so I wasn't keen on this film - but wait: I loved Spaced, enjoyed Shaun of the Dead and still think that Hot Fuzz is the funniest comedy of the last eight or nine years. However unlike Spaced, Shaun and Fuzz, the interplay between Pegg and Frost in Paul seems to be almost pastiche - the pet names, the geeky references and so on - the jokes, as I've said above are not really very funny, the story is lumpy, the characters' relationships feel forced, the jeopardy is artificial and even the premise itself feels unlikely (surely these guys are too old for this sort of thing now?).

but I'm getting ahead of myself. For the uninitiated, Paul is the story of two SF geeks - Clive (Nick Frost) and Graeme (Simon Pegg) - who make the pilgrimage to Comic Con, the San Diego nerdfest and then take a road trip around the western USA in an RV .Along the way they pick up a fugitive alien, Paul, and find themselves hotly pursued by mysterious government agents (shades of Repo Man here) led by Agent Zoil (the impeccable Jason Bateman).

As I've said above, much of the rest of the audience - in a packed screening - seemed to be enjoying the film with some enthusiasm (and speaking of full cinemas, this looks like being a hit already; a reversal of erstwhile Frost/Pegg director Edgar Wright's fortunes with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a good film that flopped). So it's quite possible that I'm missing something vital - but I don't think I am. I'm a mid-level geek myself, and as above I have enjoyed their previous work. In Paul though, the film is hamstrung by waaay too many unfunny jokes that fall flat and a lack of imagination in the recycling of older, funnier shtick (plus you know you're in trouble when a script turns to straightforward swearing to get cheap laughs - like putting up a sign saying RUN OUT OF IDEAS, only much more expensive).

Any positives then? Well, an unexpected high note was Seth Rogan as Paul. Voice work, I know, but digitally-created aliens in live action films will always carry The Mark Of Jar-Jar - and the titular Zeta-Reticulan is probably the best thing about the film - he gets all the best lines (or at least swears the most convincingly) and, oddly, isn't too OTT. Paul himself is a convincing creation and much credit is due to the effects team that created him. Also Jeffrey Tambor's vain and rude SF author, 'Adam Shadowchild' rang very true and made me chuckle (though that's my years of dealing with truculent writers showing through - in a previous life I looked after signings in a bookshop).

There's one other thing to mention - there is an embarrassingly ham-fisted shoehorning of an atheist message into the film. Now, I'm an atheist myself and I suppose it's kind-of nice to see it talked about explicitly in a mainstream movie. However, this is not a good advertisement for us rationalist non-believers; as ever, we're smug, insensitive and rude. And it begs the question: is a light-hearted comedy road trip with aliens the place to do this? No, especially when it adds nothing to the story whatsoever. In any case, Hollywood is hardly a nest of evangelism and whilst American cinema has many vices - vacuity, superficiality, excessive violence, greed, banality, venality (to get the ball rolling) - preachiness is not one of them

Paul is by no means the worst film of the year, but it is probably the most disappointing. If I was being cruel, I could say it's Pegg/Frost's own Phantom Menace - soiling their earlier genius with self-indulgence - but that might be a bit too harsh. That said, I probably won't enjoy repeats of Spaced in quite the same way after Paul.


Screening notes:

As mentioned above, I'd say a good 80% of the people watching found this scarily hilarious, with even sporadic clapping in places (once at a joke THAT WAS IN THE TRAILER). If you're interested in this phenomenon of otherwise intelligent people doing stupid things, try reading Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World: A Short History Of Modern Delusions.


  1. I have yet to catch this one (hasn't opened locally yet and haven't made it to NYC lately, to see any of the press screenings I love so much).

    As per your quest, I tried the same thing once. Way back in 1992, when I was a naive "kid" of 24, I took it upon myself to see everything that came down my pike (being Harrisburg PA). I made it til about the end of March. It was then that Ladybugs, a movie about a little girl's soccer team, starring Rodney Dangerfield as the coach, opened, and I just could not bring myself to do it. Streak broken right there.

    Anyway, good luck on your quest. I would like to mention that a new Big Mamma's House is coming soon as is a new Fast and Furious. Seriously though, good luck.

  2. I actually meant a new Madea's Family (Big Momma has already come and gone (as your Bottom 5 list can attest to).

  3. Cheers! Always good to have a bit of support. 'Big Mommas' review on the way, suffice to say it stinks to the highest of heavens - exactly the kind of picture that might give me the wobbles on this mission. Have to say though, it's made up for by having already caught a few quite enjoyable films I wouldn't have otherwise seen (e.g. It's Kind Of A Funny Story, Rango - review to come)

    Fast & Furious I am not looking forward to, though with any luck the bangs, crashes and explosions will keep me from falling asleep.

  4. Excellent review!

    Paul is, at best, really funny. At worst, it's sloppily put together, even though it's a Pegg/Frost film. They work better with Edgar Wright. Always have, probably always will.

    But, and I had the chance to see it a couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed it and laughed a lot. Their movies are always games of "where is that from?!" in terms of references. It's all pretty subtle.

    Most of the problem I had with the film is that, oddly enough, it seemed pretty self important in parts. The whole God thing was unnecessary and alien(!)ating.

    But, it's something I'll visit again.