What if you and your most superbly geeky bestest friend ever met an alien? I mean a real life honest-to-Carl Sagan extry terrestrial. What if?
You would plotz. You would. Like Nick Frost’s Clive does here, you would giggle like a loon and then faint, out cold from the sheer splendidness of this happenstance. I know I would. And then you would go on a most excellent road trip with your new alien buddy, because he totally needs your help to escape the FBI and whatnot. And it would be an awesome road trip.
That’s Paul, in a nutshell of interstellar proportions. Oh, it’s funny. And sweet. And fearless, in small ways that wouldn’t stand out if most mainstream movies weren’t so damned cowardly in so many big ways. It’s a total nerd fantasy, and don’t pretend you haven’t thought about it yourself: What if I met an alien? C’mon, it’s just us here: you can admit it gives you shivers.
The thing about Simon Pegg and Nick Frost — costars and cowriters — is that they’re just us here too. They’re big ol’ dorky nerd boys, and I say that with the deepest love and admiration. They know what they are and they’re not afraid to admit it — hell, they’re not afraid to celebrate it. It’s what gives Paul its wonderful sweet nerdy mojo. You’ve surely noted this among your geek pals, too: We bristle when mundanes, outsiders, normals poke fun at us, because they do it out of meanness — they don’t get us. But it’s okay for we geeks to make fun of ourselves and our obsessions and our propensities and our goofiness and the weird nutty things we love to distraction (Star Trek Star Wars, Titanic, Aliens, etc: refs abound here, cleverly woven into the narrative and zingy one-liners). Because we make fun out of self-awareness and self-deprecation, and out of love.
So that’s what’s going on here. Pegg (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs) and Frost (The Boat That Rocked, Kinky Boots) — as writers and actors — are just so deeply in love with everything geeky, and also recognize it for the madness it is. They are basically playing themselves, except here they’re called, respectively, Graeme and Clive, two British “nerds on the lam from Comic Con” in San Diego, on a road trip exploring the paranormal places of the American Southwest — Area 51, Roswell, etc — when they run into Paul, a small spindly person of nonhuman, non-Earthly extraction. (Seth Rogen [The Green Hornet, Funny People] supplies the voice of the CGI character, and he is perfect: deadpan, wiseass, hilarious. I think I like him more as a short big-headed Gray dude than I do as a human man.) I’ll leave you to discover Paul’s backstory, how he ended up with that name (which is, like the rest of the movie, funny and sweet and a teensy bit sad), and why he’s on the run from some government suits, including Jason Bateman’s (The Switch, Couples Retreat) FBI agent, who really really wants to catch up with this ET…
I wish I could say that Paul was Hot Fuzz with aliens, or Shaun of the Dead on the road, but it simply isn’t: it can’t ever have hoped to achieve that level of genius geek perfection without director Edgar Wright, who is so brilliant that I forgive him for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Paul is directed — rather indifferently, it must be said — by Greg Mottola (Adventureland, Superbad), and so it’s missing a level of geek servicing that it might have had. That said: there’s real power in seeing how Pegg and Frost’s own longtime geek bromance translates (again) to the screen. One bit involves the guys being mistaken for a gay couple — the characters and the actors are that close, and it’s been a running joke throughout the work together of these two hetero men — but there’s nothing in the least bit homophobic about it, as it so easily could have been, and how there often is in similar instances from artists who are less comfortable with themselves than these lovely guys are. And just as there’s genuine emotion that is unafraid to show itself here, there’s also some honest, earthy crudity that never descends into the juvenile, some deliciously creative vulgarity, and — working on the same level of basic authenticity — some good smackdowns of creationism and general antirationality among the American public.
Ah, and there’s that, too: Boys and their geeky things can, unfortunately, be so sexist, even misogynist, but there’s none of that here. Kristen Wiig’s (Despicable Me, Date Night) fundie trailer-park proprietor gets a wakeup call in the realities of biology and evolution from the mere existence of Paul, and there’s nothing vicious in how she is portrayed. (She’s cute and nice, and Graeme falls for her, of course.) Graeme gets to engage in hand-to-hand combat with Sigourney Weaver — she plays Bateman’s fed boss — which is surely a wet dream of some significance for many a geek boy, and probably more than a few geek girls… and there’s nothing in the least bit offensive about it.
There’s some kinda magic in all that, if only by comparison with most rancid examples of pandering geekitude spewed out by Hollywood. There’s nothing crass about Paul, for all that it can be quite raw and naughty. It was good, for me at least, to be reminded that it’s not that I can’t appreciate some bawdy silliness, it’s that The Movies hardly ever get it right, like Paul does.