In this film publicity image released by Universal Pictures, Paul the alien, voiced by Seth Rogen, left, and Simon Pegg are shown in a scene from the film, "Paul." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures)
2 1/2 stars out of 4
Though not classics by any stretch, writer/actor Simon Pegg's "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" skewered zombie flicks and cop/buddy action thrillers with sly tongue-in-cheek wit and a not-too-intellectual approach. Each was a combination lampoon/love letter to the respective genres and both were directed by Pegg's co-writer Edgar Wright.
Wright wasn't involved with Pegg's subsequent "Run, Fatboy, Run" or the new "Paul," and his absence makes it clear that Pegg isn't as great a screenwriter as initially suspected but merely an adequate one. In all fairness to Pegg, Wright's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" proved he's not all that special without Pegg. These guys need each other more professionally than either might care to admit.
"Paul" wants to be a clever jab at sci-fi movies and the millions of fanboys that live vicariously through them but it never quite fully gels. There is a fair share of laughs, but few of them come via the sci-fi messenger. Instead of original satire, Pegg and his co-writer and frequent co-star Nick Frost lazily pilfer directly from other films, and while you might giggle at these bits you're more likely to groan.
Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are lifelong buddies who've crossed the pond from England to attend the West Coast-based Comic Con. While in the states the fashion-challenged hetero life partners also plan on visiting several notable landmarks associated with sci-fi lore (i.e., Roswell, N.M., Area 51). Their collective, high level of oblivious dedication to all things geek cannot be overstated.
After narrowly escaping the wrath of two mouth-breathing rednecks, Graeme and Clive witness a single car wreck on the highway by a vehicle that was being driven -- very badly -- by Paul (voice and motion-capture by Seth Rogen). Baring an uncanny resemblance to the Roger character from the animated TV series "American Dad," Paul is an intergalactic hippie type now in need of a ride to a rendezvous location to reunite with his space "peeps."
Considering how enamored they are with sci-fi, it's surprising just how long it takes for Graeme and Clive to embrace Paul as a kindred spirit. After a considerable lull, the threesome makes a pit-stop at an RV park where they meet Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), by far the most interesting character in the entire film.
Blind in one eye, Ruth is the daughter of a bible-thumping widower (John Carroll Lynch) who shares her father's slightly clueless religious fervor and paranoia. Ruth doesn't know it yet but she's about to uncork the metaphoric pressure valve that has been bottling up a lifetime of repressed naughty behavior.
Coming in a close second to Wiig in the entertainment department is Jason Bateman (aka "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business") as the tightly wound covert agent Zoil. Always a half-step behind Paul, the very serious Zoil must also deal with a merciless, faceless female boss (Sigourney Weaver) while playing wet nurse to two incompetent underlings (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio).
Director Greg Mottola -- who did such a great job with the teen stoner comedy "Superbad" -- doesn't seem at all comfortable with the material, which is in large part due to the tentative script. Most people initially interested in "Paul" are "Shaun" and "Fuzz" cultists who are likely to be disappointed with Pegg and Frost's sleepwalking performances. Pure sci-fi fans -- the target of much of the hit-or-miss humor -- probably won't like being the butt of most of the jokes.
The heavy duty profanity Pegg and Wright put to such good use in "Shaun" and "Fuzz" seems forced, desperate and out of place here. Wiig (because of her character) is the only one who gets any mileage out of it. This also puts the film far into hard "R" territory, thus making it an iffy choice for a date movie.
Unless you're a Pegg fanatic, wait for a second-run dollar theater showing or the DVD. (Universal)