Geek is its own language, and Paul speaks it fluently. Pandering with an unrepentantly enthusiastic orgy of visual and verbal references, Greg Mottola’s road-trip comedy proves an uneven but jovial ode to all things fanboy-ish, offering up a Spielbergian saga of an alien on the run from sunglasses-adorned G-men that revels in its own cinema knowingness. Written by stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (here working without Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz collaborator Edgar Wright), this lightweight diversion has nothing nominally serious on its mind, a fact it amusingly owns up to during a finale in which its bulbous-headed, bug-eyed extraterrestrial hero Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) pays dismissive lip service to the very notion of an overriding message to the proceedings. Yet if no lesson is immediately apparent, Mottola’s follow-up to Adventureland is nonetheless a quite brazen assertion of our new film world order. A symbol of the (seemingly irreversible) pop-culture takeover perpetrated by the dorky genre aficionados who gleefully obsess over Star Trek, Star Wars, and their sci-fi and horror ilk, it’s a tale that, in its portrait of marginalized and picked-on true believers triumphing over callous adult forces, further legitimizes teen boy-targeted properties as mass-market touchstones of significant authority.
It’s debatable whether the canonization of such franchises is a positive cultural development, but ultimately, that’s a separate issue; Paul simply loves a good cameo from Buck Rogers‘s Twiki, and expects its viewers to as well. Pegg and Frost’s script presents the wish-fulfillment fantasy of nerds everywhere via the exploits of Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost), British BFF tourists who, after a joyous visit to San Diego’s Comic-Con, and while on a trip to some of the country’s most famous UFO locations, wind up discovering and befriending actual superpowered spaceman Paul, who’s been in government lockdown for 60 years and has the wisecracking humor of, well, Seth Rogen. Along their quest to get Paul on an intergalactic ship back home, the trio pick up fundamentalist Christian trailer park manager Ruth (Kristen Wiig) and make innumerable jokes directed squarely at their target demographic, whose fondness for Predator, Back to the Future, and Spielberg classics (E.T., Close Encounters, the Indiana Jones movies) is indulged with a single-mindedness that’s borderline alienating. So pathological is the film’s desire to please its core audience that, even if one gets the punchlines, the effect can be dispiriting, in large part because Mottola, Pegg, and Frost incorrectly assume that clever allusions, rather than inspired scenarios, are the key to eliciting laughs.
Paul‘s movie shout-outs are frequently sharp, as with the ridiculous name of Jason Bateman’s pursuing federal agent, and its random bits are often wittier, such as Wiig’s reaction to her maiden joint toke. Yet the script barely tethers them together with a creative set of circumstances; instead, it quickly settles into an enervating structure in which the crew is chased by feds, makes a pit stop, and engages in some bawdy bonding, and is then chased some more. For all its cheeky homages to beloved predecessors, Mottola’s film isn’t after subversion, just celebration, and consequently, its humor is dependent on the ingenuity of its bon mots, which are less consistently funny than in either of Pegg and Frost’s prior big-screen team-ups.
Recurring gags about Graeme and Clive being lovers (and Clive’s jealousy over Graeme’s relationships with Ruth and Paul) flirt with frat-comedy gay panic, but at heart, turn out to be merely sketchy rehashes of Superbad‘s more earnest, affecting portrait of male friendship. And a critique of organized religion as the delusions of crazed hillbillies is, however hilarious, another example of the material preaching to the choir. Still, as far as for-the-fans gestures go, climaxing with someone telling Sigourney Weaver, “Get away from her, you bitch!” is—to quote numerous characters’ response to a three-boobed comic book siren—pretty awesome.