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Movie review: 'Paul'

The whimsical and gentle buddy comedy comes as a relief. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost star as fanboys who go on the run to protect a weed-toking alien (voiced by Seth Rogen).

March 18, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Seth Rogen provides the voice of a rude and sometimes crude alien named Paul in "Paul."
Seth Rogen provides the voice of a rude and sometimes crude alien named Paul… (Double Negative / Universal…)

Don't let "Paul's" R-rating fool you. In the latest comedy from those funny Brits of "Hot Fuzz" and "Shaun of the Dead," the wise guys have gone more off-center than off-color with this whimsical and surprisingly gentle road trip adventure about two friends, an obsession and an alien named Paul.

After the sharp bite and harsh light of most American-style guy-based funny films today, "Paul" comes as such sweet relief. If not for a lot of F-bombs and other naughty words, this would be a family film, a sort of fractured "E.T.," with Seth Rogen never more likeable than as the bald-headed extraterrestrial who just wants to phone home (he should consider this kind of disappearing act, a la Mike Myers and Shrek, more often).

The film was written by and costars the "Hot Fuzz" cops and "Shaun" zombie hunters Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, perfecting their affable pair personas as friends on the run to protect this alien intruder. Like the earlier two films, which Pegg wrote with Edgar Wright (who directed "Fuzz" and "Shaun"), "Paul" is an ode to films past. In this case, the target for all the sight gags and slight puns is sci-fi movies great and small, but mostly Spielberg-ian starting with Paul himself, a gray-green, shorter version of those ethereal beings of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" but with "E.T." hands.

The movie is a good fit for director Greg Mottola, with a filmmaking vocabulary in which "sentimental" is not a dirty word (see the lovely '80s nostalgia of "Adventureland"). Here he has created an easy marriage between the British hysteria (proper and restrained, don't you know) of road-trippers Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) and the laid-back mellow yellow of Paul's weed-toking, flip-flop wearing CGI wonder (thanks to effects wizards at Double Negative for creating the most excellent illusion that Paul is always and actually, really, truly there).

As all tall tales of fanboys should, the story begins in San Diego at that annual gathering of sci-fi movie freaks, Comic-Con. Graeme and Clive are in the crush of all the convention crazies yet still managing to look nerdy and out of place even in a crowd that favors Darth Vader-wear. The "we're all aliens" and "it's hard for a lot of us to fit in" themes are well established long before Graeme and Clive set out in their RV after the convention closes. Their quest is to visit all of the major close-encounter hot spots around the country. By the time they hit Area 51 and come face to face with Paul, we understand their outsiderness, their completely adorable geekdom, and most of us will feel their pain.

The trip picks up speed once Paul is on-board. He's been hanging out (well, imprisoned) at a secret military facility for 60-some years, where Zelig-like, he's been advising world leaders and moviemakers (all of this made funnier by the lack of irony). But now the security chief wants to see what might be learned by poking around inside that big head of his.

Much of the real action comes as Paul goes on the run, with Clive and Graeme recruited as his reluctant accomplices, and a tag-team of special agents on their tail. Overall, the casting is spot on and the cameos are clever. Among the central ensemble are comic regulars Jason Bateman as Agent Zoil (full-name Lorenzo Zoil, a play on "Lorenzo's Oil" that will either bring a smile or a groan), with Kristen Wiig in a nice turn as a hyper-religious possible love interest for Graeme.

There is no real attempt at serious depth here and Mottola, with cinematographer Lawrence Sher, keeping things light and breezy. Sher has emerged as a sort of a comic specialist with an indie-feel starting with such films as "Garden State" and "Kissing Jessica Stein," and moving on to bigger stages with "The Hangover" and "I Love You, Man," among others. Along with the rest of the production team, they've given everything in the film a sort of rumpled, empty potato-chip bag look.

As a running riff on all the sci-fi movie conventions, a lot of scenes will feel familiar because they are, just put through the Pegg-Frost juicer. And that is the central key — without the guys, the result just wouldn't be nearly as appealing. Somehow, they have created characters who are both smart and buffoonish in such an embraceable way, and a friendship that feels so true (they are real life longtime friends as well as creative collaborators) that good times are to be had spending time with them. If the film's not quite out of this world, it's close enough.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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