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Fellow geeks, I am going to kick off this review with a comparison that ought to make sense: Paul is a filthy Alf.
In director Greg Mottola’s latest, the titular alien (voiced by Seth Rogen) became trapped here on Earth when his spacecraft crash landed way back before most of us were born. He’s been a government guest/captive ever since, although when we meet him shortly after the film opens he is on the run from his former captors. The alien falls in with Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost), a pair of lovable geeky losers from the U.K. who have traveled to the States to attend Comic-Con International and road-trip their way through notable UFO sighting-related locations throughout the United States.
There are two ways to watch Paul, and how you engage with it depends largely on your grasp of significant milestones in geek culture. There’s abundance of references throughout the movie, with nods both direct and indirect. There are explicit riffs on everything from Star Wars to Alien to Capturing the Friedmans and then back to Star Wars again, alongside deeper-cut nods like the famed “Wilhelm scream.”
Fortunately, those with little to no geek blood flowing through their veins are not left in the dark. One of Paul‘s chief successes is the way these references are either effortlessly woven into the context of the plot or pushed so far into the background that they could easily be mistaken for a creative choice on the part of the filmmakers. When you get a nod, you’ll crack a wide grin at being a part of the inside joke. And when you don’t, there’s no jarring sense that you’ve missed something special. The story simply continues to unfold and the missed reference falls into it seamlessly.
Credit for this goes to the writers, Pegg and Frost, who previously starred together in the offbeat comedies Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. The duo possesses an innate grasp of geeky pop culture and they flex those muscles like they never have before for Paul. The result is an overwhelming success, a sharp story which tickles the fanperson funnybone without forgetting that it’s important to have a heart.
Paul’s CG animated self is, ironically, the most developed character in the cast. He is equal parts comic foil and wacky alien stoner dude, a smack-talking extraterrestrial who drops nuggets of wisdom alongside his many F-bombs. Rogen’s performance is critical to this, but equally important is the CG-animated creation from which his voice emerges. The animators did a fantastic job of breathing life into the alien, which, coupled with Rogen’s delivery, really gives the sense that he is there.
Pegg and Frost are predictably great, but Paul is very much an ensemble production. Kristen Wiig and Jason Bateman get the most time to play — and play they do — but they’re supported by equally strong minor appearances by the likes of Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Jane Lynch, Blythe Danner, John Carroll Lynch, David Koechner, Jeffrey Tambor and, in a hilarious late-game twist, Sigourney Weaver.
Bringing it all together is Mottola, who is really just a perfect fit for this material. Profane and sentimental in equal measures, strip out the geekier elements and you find plenty of common ground in Paul with his earlier work on films like Superbad and Adventureland. He ensures that each performer in the massive cast gets their chance to make us laugh before departing to make way for the next one, and he pulls solid work out of everyone. Some of the more reference-heavy moments in particular come off magically, and credit Mottola for guiding the delivery into just the right place.
Paul is a fun ride, beginning to end. There’s comedy (high, low and stoned), heart, action, an explosion or two and a parade of references that will certainly result in the spur-of-the-moment creation of more than a few drinking games. There’s added value here in spades for the geekier customers, but Paul stands just fine on its own as an R-rated comedy about a smack-talking alien visitor. Alf was never this filthy.
Paul opens today in the United States.