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Spaced Out Alien Comedy Lands in 'Paul'

Inside jokes and references make movie a celebration of nerdiness in all its forms.

Comedies like Paul certainly don’t have to be great to be loveable, though to love them requires embracing your inner nerd without reservations.

(To watch an exclusive clip of 'Paul," click on the image to the upper right.)

A combination buddy comedy, road trip flick and sci-fi parody, Paul is tailor-made for those of us who were raised on Stephen Spielberg and Star Wars, and then grew up to enjoy Seth Rogen slacker comedies--if you can count that as growing up.

Paul, which ranked No. 5 with weekend box office receipts of more than $13 million, may not be for everyone, but certainly most young moviegoers will understand and appreciate what it’s shooting for.

Though they are already well known as the stars of the quirky homage-comedies Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), Paul is the first film written by the British duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who by now should be household names in geek comedy on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the middle of a nerd-centric holiday in America, British fan-boys Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) leave Comic Con San Diego for a Great American Road Trip, UFO style. Piloting a recreational vehicle (RV), they set off across the desert for Area 51, where the government tucks away its secret projects near Roswell, NM, but along the way the travelers experience an unexpected close encounter with a foul-mouthed fugitive extraterrestrial named Paul (voiced by Rogen).

As the Close Encounters of the Third Kind opening sequence explains, Paul has been on Earth since 1947. Since then, he has lived in secret, advising the military and Hollywood (which leads to a hilarious voice-cameo by Spielberg himself). Though Paul is on the run from a trio of government agents (Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio), he still has time to teach the maladjusted Brits important lessons about friendship, love and having fun. There’s also a lot of weed smoking, car chases and anal probe jokes.

Yes, slacker humor of this variety has been done before, but usually it doesn’t get this kind of movie, which comes complete with an E.T. parody and a sincerely likeable romantic side-plot, which is where Saturday Night Live's Kristen Wiig comes in. About halfway through the film--just as we start wondering how this alien bro-comedy road trip will keep momentum--Wiig enters the scene as a religious fanatic and RV park owner who Paul “converts” into a cursing hedonist. Wiig’s inventive potty-mouth and awkward chemistry with Pegg are alone worth the price of admission, as is Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman doing his best impression of FBI agent Mulder from the X Files.          

 Though the duo of Pegg and Frost have replaced their former director, Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) with the more traditional comedy director Greg Motolla (Superbad, Adventureland), this sloppy but loveable stoner’s take on the basic E.T. plotline is deeply infused with charm, wit and film references. Oh so many film references. Watching Paul is like flipping through an abridged encyclopedia of geek culture presented by a random sampling of some of today’s best comedians.

Besides Pegg, Frost and Rogen, TV veterans Jane Lynch and Jeffery Tambor as well as sci-fi icon Sigourney Weaver fill out the cast with cameos. As you might imagine Alien inside jokes ensue. The whole thing is balanced between a classic sci-fi love letter and a standard buddy comedy: it’s the kind of formula that only Pegg and Frost (with the assistance of Rogen) can successfully pull off. Paul constantly reaffirms that its writers and stars are just as nerdy as the movie's characters.     

Despite its best efforts Paul is more witty and cute than laugh-out-loud funny, if you can apply the word cute to a movie this raunchy. Though it may be more akin with earlier Rogen films than Frost and Pegg’s Shaun of the Dead, that zombie comedy still works as a good litmus test for whether or not someone will enjoy Paul. If you’d like to see Pegg and Frost lovingly send-up Spielberg’s brand of sci-fi the way they did George A. Romero’s zombie films then you certainly won’t be disappointed in Paul.

With a first act that takes far too long to kick into gear and a few odd jokes that simply fall flat, Paul may not be quite as funny as its older brother Shaun, but it’s an enjoyably goofy romp nonetheless. It’s an energetic camp-fest that doesn’t apologize for it’s inside jokes or mix of crassness and sentimentality. Paul may be a movie by nerds for nerds, but you don’t need to speak Klingon or get all the references to enjoy the ride.  

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