Centuries from now, historians of early twenty-first century popular culture will surely point to “Paul” as the ultimate example of geek culture’s invasion of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. Here is a movie about nerds, written by nerds, made for nerds, in which the word “nerd” appears in the dialogue at least a dozen times. This movie is a Toby Radloff cameo away from being the dorkiest movie ever created.
The film concerns a road trip of the sort that only happens in movies, the kind where friendships are tested and strengthened, romance is found in the most unexpected places, and wacky car chases occur between government agents and men in RVs. In another movie, we might label these cliches and brand the whole experience artificial. But it feels wholly appropriate for “Paul,” a movie made entirely of quotations, both visual and verbal, from other movies. If I had to venture a guess, I would estimate that no less than 15% of all dialogue spoken in this movie is lifted directly out of other movies.
That’s par for the course for stars and co-writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who only make movies about other movies, like “Shaun of the Dead,” where they used their knowledge of zombie movies to survive a zombie apocalypse, or “Hot Fuzz,” in which they applied cop movie logic to their jobs as police officers in a sleepy British village. Pegg and Frost have played these sorts of roles so many times already that their mere presence as intensely devoted friends and pop culture aficionados is something a movie quotation itself.
In “Paul,” they play Graeme and Clive, British buddies who cap off their first trip to San Diego Comic-Con with a road trip through the American southwest. Hardcore sci-fi fanboys, they want to soak in the atmosphere of America’s UFO hotspots, from Area 51 to Roswell. But they get more atmosphere than they bargained for one night on a dark and deserted stretch of road, when they stumble upon a real live alien named Paul — voiced by Seth Rogen but played by an impressively lifelike CGI creation — who’s been stranded on Earth for decades after crashing his spaceship here back in 1947. Tired of being a prisoner of the US government, he’s engineered an escape attempt which now requires the help of our two incredulous geeks.
There are obstacles along the way, including Jason Bateman cast against type as the badass government agent assigned by an unseen “Big Guy” (shades of “Charlie’s Angels,” “The X-Files,” and just a smidge of “Knight Rider”) to bring Paul back into custody. And there’s the opportunity for romance as well in the form of Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a trailer park employee with an eye disease that requires her to wear Warren Beatty’s glasses from the end of “Bonnie and Clyde” (curious that Pegg and Frost dressed up their movie nerd’s dream girl like Beatty and not Dunaway). But really the stakes are extremely low. The mood is warm and funny, as the mood is in any Pegg and Frost team-up. There are lots of cute cameos and supporting roles from funny folks like Jane Lynch and Bill Hader. But that’s about it.
“Paul” borrows heavily from so many movies — “E.T.” obviously, but also “Jaws,” “Aliens,” “Easy Rider” and many more — but while it definitely takes their lines or plots, it doesn’t quite replicate their emotional stakes or dramatic payoffs. Unlike the movies its creators love and are paying homage to here, “Paul” is one big goof. It’s worth noting that Pegg and Frost’s previous buddy movies were directed by Edgar Wright, who made his own movie without them last summer, “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World” (“Paul” is directed by “Superbad”‘s Greg Mottola). I liked both of the movies the movies Pegg and Frost and Wright made separately, but neither as much as the ones they made together. Call me a nerd, but I’m looking forward to their next collaboration.