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The rise of Simon Pegg to genuine movie stardom has been a source of vicarious (not to mention slightly ridiculous) pleasure to me. I mean, I’ve met Pegg once, about eight years ago, and we spoke for five minutes at the absolute most. But he’s a thoroughly nice bloke (or at least he was prior to making Shaun of the Dead) and it’s been nice to see him get on, both as the lead performer in his own films and the comic relief in blockbusters (some hard-core Trekkies may disagree).

 

Currently enjoying a high-profile release in the UK is Pegg’s new film, Paul, directed by Greg Mottola. In it, Pegg and regular sparring partner Nick Frost play Graeme and Paul, a couple of British SF and UFO fans on a visit to the San Diego comic-con followed by a tour of places in the south-west USA like Area 51 and Roswell. The trip takes an unexpected turn when they witness a road accident, the driver involved being – well, the titular Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Paul is also visiting the US, but from rather further afield: he’s an alien who’s been stranded on Earth since 1947 and is on the run from the government who’ve been holding him prisoner ever since. Paul recruits Graeme and Clive to give him a lift to a spot where his ride home will shortly be arriving – can they get him there while avoiding the relentless Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman), a bona fide Man in Black?

Hmmm. Having gone to a number of SF conventions in my time, and fairly recently returned from my own road trip through the south-west US, I felt a definite affinity for Paul right from the start. However, even this did not disguise the fact that, compared to Shaun or Hot Fuzz (which are surely going to be most people’s points of reference), this movie is a little bit disappointing.

It’s by no means a total failure – I laughed a lot, and I feel obliged to mention that many people at the same screening as me were laughing considerably more than me. But there are long stretches where the laughs-per-minute ratio drops fairly drastically, and some of those were born as much of recognition as genuine amusement. It’s a very likeable film, just not hilarious.

One assumes this is partly due to the absence of Edgar Wright, director and co-writer of Shaun and Fuzz, who was off making Scott Pilgrim at the time. In his place, Mottola does a very decent job as a director, but the script – co-written by Pegg and Frost – is just a touch shapeless, lacking in structural rigour, focus and wit. The comedy’s a little too broad and repetitive, and the scenes attempting to evoke genuine pathos feel forced and intrusive. Even the plethora of nudge-wink references to other films don’t raise the smiles they should – some of them are a little obvious and heavy-handed, and at least one of them is painfully cheesy. (The central idea that SF fans are also likely to be Flying Saucer people is also… well, while it’s central to the script, it ain’t necessarily so, and Simon Pegg knows as much.)

One element of the script which actively annoyed me was a subplot about a character named Ruth (played by Kristen Wiig) who gets picked up along the way. Ruth is initially an uptight creationist, but meeting Paul causes her to lose her faith and become (essentially) a foul-mouthed thrill-seeking hedonist. Nothing wrong with that idea in principle, but to begin with Ruth’s written as a one-dimensional caricature, a militant atheist’s idea of what a Christian fundamentalist is like. And then she turns into a Christian fundamentalist’s idea of what an atheist is like. At no point does she ring true as an actual person. I don’t have a problem with people pointing out the (extremely numerous) flaws in Biblical creationism as a world-view (I’ll happily do so myself at the drop of a hat), but Paul‘s treatment of this is basically to take a few cheap shots at an easy target.

As well as co-writing the script, Nick Frost also finds himself promoted to, effectively, joint lead in this film. Frost’s ability to steal scenes from much more experienced performers, often with not much more than a line or two, is formidable, but he’s much less effective when it comes to carrying large sections of the film himself, as he does here. This also means that Simon Pegg, a genuinely gifted actor as well as a great comic, has fewer chances to shine. To choose a metaphor they’d appreciate, Pegg and Frost are like Han and Chewbacca: a great double-act, but one of them’s much better at long dialogue scenes than the other.

I’m being quite critical of Paul, but the fact remains that I enjoyed watching it and by no means felt I’d wasted my time or money. Pegg is always very watchable, Seth Rogen delivers a great vocal performance as the title character, and Jason Bateman plays it commendably straight as the man on our heroes’ trail. (Sue from Glee turns up in a slightly alarming wig, too.) Compared to most comedies, Paul is smart and warm and – above all – funny, and it’s only in comparison with Pegg and Frost’s previous work that it falls a little short of expectations.

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