Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, Simon Pegg’s beloved collaborations with director/co-writer Edgar Wright, are defined by an affection for the genres to which they lovingly pay homage. Pegg and regular collaborator Nick Frost—co-star of those Wright-directed films—have become geek heroes, refashioning the art and entertainment of their childhood in their own image. That process continues with Paul, a science-fiction comedy co-written by Pegg and Frost that radiates fond familiarity for E.T., Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, and other heartwarming opuses about space aliens. (For extra geek-cred points, the film even references Mac And Me, the subgenre’s ultimate desecration.) With Paul, Pegg, Frost, and director Greg Mottola (Superbad) play it both ways, lightly spoofing messianic cinematic extraterrestrials like E.T. through its title character—a pot-smoking, party-hearty space alien in a hurry to return home—while still gleaning wide-eyed wonder from everyday guys bonding with a visitor from another world.
Pegg and Frost play exuberant Brits carrying out their life’s goal of attending nerd paradise Comic-Con before embarking on an epic, exceedingly dorky tour of prominent UFO sites. Early in their journey, they encounter a real-life alien (a CGI effect voiced by Seth Rogen) who is on the run from a glowering, deadpan Men In Black-style operative (Jason Bateman) and a pair of bungling FBI agents (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio). Kristen Wiig co-stars as a clean-living Bible-thumper who goes wild once Rogen’s wacky alien uses his powers to liberate her from fundamentalist dogma and unearth her buried love of exuberantly awkward profanity.
Pegg and Frost’s relationship is depicted with an almost homoerotic tenderness that doesn’t always extend to other aspects of the film: Wiig’s character, for example, serves primarily as a vessel for cheap, familiar cracks at organized religion and creationism. Paul is more slapdash than Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, but it shares many of those film’s virtues and underlying sweetness, though the alien sometimes comes off as a Poochie-like exemplar of in-your-face attitude. Yet by the time it reaches an appropriately epic conclusion, the film has earned its laughs as well as its big dramatic moments. Paul is a little sloppy and a little sappy, but the filmmakers’ passion for their subject matter carries it over the occasional rough spot.