Director Greg Mottola gave us Superbad only four years ago, a monster R-rated hit with unlikely elements working together to create a sweet and funny and still raunchy comedy. His follow-up, Adventureland, had a good idea and supporting cast, but unfortunately relied on two of the least charismatic lead actors out there to carry the comedy and the heart.
Adventureland‘s Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart were only playing a few years older than Superbad‘s Michael Cera and Jonah Hill, but already the chasm of implied acceptable innocence was too great to give Adventureland the young sweetness it needed to plug into the comedy-free holes.
Then comes Paul, a fantastic premise but further along the unfortunate path of “they’re too old for their naÃ¯vetÃ© to be cute or feasible” (counter-example: Cedar Rapids). It’s also too random and arbitrarily profane for “random profanity comedy” to really sing like it should.
Best Brit chums (and co-screenwriters) Simon Pegg and Nick Frost come to America to attend San Diego Comic-Con and take a road trip tour of America’s many UFO sites. They are lovely, hilarious nerds, and it’s always great to watch them riff together, even with no aim. Frankly, had the movie just been them geeking out on Area 51 and Jeffrey Tambor as their favorite author, I probably would have enjoyed it more. Then they encounter all kinds of unlikely and random hostility out in the wilds of America, and finally meet Paul, a well-rendered CGI alien voiced unnecessarily by Seth Rogen, and the movie loses its cool.
Rogen’s voice is good for balancing acts of profane coolness and warm sincerity, and he can even sell overdone gratuitous cursing most of the time, except you can never really buy Rogen’s sincerity even when you can see his face. Locked inside a Communion-style alien face, all the humanity we need Paul to have vanishes. Insert fart joke here, that’ll humanize him!
Mottola gets the best supporting cast together since maybe Rat Race — but besides Joe Lo Truglio, Bill Hader, and Kristen Wiig, does almost nothing with any of them. Jason Bateman comes in reliably hot and heavy, but is upstaged at every turn by the obvious disembodied voice of Sigourney Weaver (get it? She was in ALIENS!). Weaver’s Act III reveal isn’t a spoiler since you know it’s her after two syllables, but Mottola depends on us pretending not to know it’s her just to have Blythe Danner embarrass us with a terrible Aliens joke (get it? Huh? HUH?) late in the game.
Plenty of the nerd/pop culture references resonate pleasantly and the reproduction of San Diego’s Comic-Con is quite convincing. The pleasure our heroes take in their nerdy interests is deep and unfeigned. I still found Paul to be an aggravatingly obstacle-free quest and a clumsy narrative to boot. It would have been so much more fun for us to focus on our hilarious Feds pursuing Paul and Nick and Simon to their final destination than muddling the issue with local yokels and daddies. The tangle was fun at times but gratuitous and distracting most others.
And then suddenly enter Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom, for some reason. You know when you have Kristen Wiig delivering her character’s strongest convictions in a “please just give me my paycheck” monotone that something has gone very wrong somewhere. And really, is a joke about a disease drama from 1992 worth all that trouble?
Paul was not served by how many of the only chuckle-worthy best jokes and moments were spoiled by the previews, either. When the film takes an abrupt turn into actual fatalities, you may start to wonder what movie they thought they were making. I sure did. Hopefully the next Mottola film won’t be about a couple of middle-aged guys trying to achieve some youthful dream…though his next project is starring Jeff Bridges. Pegg and Frost are always a pleasure to watch — enjoy their banter and let HBO show you the rest.
MPAA Rating R-language, drug use, sexual references
Release date 3/18/11
Time in minutes 104
Director Greg Mottola
Studio Universal Pictures