Aliens are at play in the sweetly daft spaceman comedy Paul. I’m referring, of course, to Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the two clever British goofballs who co-wrote and costar in their latest finger-painted love letter to American pop culture. Having previously captured the spirit of our people’s zombie flicks and cop/buddy pics in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the two lads set their coordinates to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. And with a flourish they call an homage to Steven Spielberg, the pair assume the roles of Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost), man-boy geeks bonded in their love of all things on exhibit at Comic-Con. Graeme and Clive are thrilled beyond measure to be on US of A soil: Not only do they attend Comic-Con, but they also rent an RV to tour some of the sci-fi shrines of the UFO-friendly Southwest.
It’s there, on a stretch of dusty road and kitschy signage, that they’re flagged down by an actual ET, all big (CGI) head and spidery fingers — just like in the pictures. His name is Paul, and, voiced by Seth Rogen (back in form and liberated by invisibility), he speaks excellent stoner English. Paul has been hanging around the area since he crash-landed in a farmer’s field some 60 years ago and a little girl befriended him before the feds took him away. For decades, Paul served as a consultant to world leaders and Hollywood suits (The X-Files’ Agent Mulder was his idea). But now those same feds are thinking of terminating him. Having escaped their custody, Paul just wants to get back to his ship. And he hopes that Graeme and Clive will give him a lift.
It’s here that Paul, the movie, finally finds its own shambling, syncopated rhythm. Because in the beginning, when the boys wander the Comic-Con convention floor, the film’s comedy gears don’t yet mesh. We can hear the grinding as the U.K. stars and their awesomely American director Greg Mottola (Superbad) attempt to broaden their comedy appeal for a bigger Hollywood studio budget. But then, around the time the pilgrims pull into an RV park and Graeme is gobsmacked by love at the first sight of Ruth, the demure, psalm-quoting, creationist daughter of the religious park manager (John Carroll Lynch), Paul’s comic road map starts to make sense. (SNL’s Kristen Wiig gives one of her best, most endearing character transformations as Ruth.) Here in the desert, surrounded by a made-in-America possibility of reinvention, two visitors taste freedom with the help of a foulmouthed, 420-friendly little alien dude who loosens them up. Meanwhile, the filmmakers offer up a spot-on cartoon of types we’ve loved in dozens of other movies: the grim special agent on a Mulderian mission (Jason Bateman, possessor of a ridiculously funny character name); his dimmer underlings (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio); the more coffee, honey? diner waitress (Jane Lynch); the Spielbergian little girl all grown up (Blythe Danner, a fine comedian stealing her scenes); and, on a throne of honor, the sinister mastermind behind the plan to off Paul — played by none other than Sigourney Weaver, queen of Alien/Avatar/Galaxy Quest/Ghostbusters and everything else that she surveys.
Graeme and Clive, representatives of a nation of nonbelievers in UFOs and big dinner portions, come to the psychic capital of a country that wants to believe, and they’re transformed. In Paul, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost do likewise, in celebration of what the Spielbergian cosmos is all about. B+