After finding success with a pair of teen-oriented comedies, director Greg Mottola returns to theaters with “Paul.” Though the film features a similarly crude comedic tone as his previous efforts, this latest go-around signifies new ground for Mottola, who leaves the coming-of-age domestication of “Superbad” and “Adventureland” for the realm of science fiction.
Along for the ride are Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, a pair of popular British actors who also co-wrote the film. They star as Clive and Graeme, two comic book connoisseurs who have come stateside for the annual Comic-Con Convention. Along the way, they encounter a runaway alien named Paul—voiced by Seth Rogen. Paul is a boorish yet loveable scamp who enlists the duo to help him find his way home while evading pursuing secret agents. Zaniness, of course, ensues.
While “Paul” does have its occasional bright spots, there isn’t an original idea to be found in the entire film. As a director, Mottola waits for the moments in which he can cram in another “Star Trek” or Nintendo reference, allowing enough time for Frost and Pegg to essentially wink at the audience and say, “See what we did there? Isn’t this awesome?”
It isn’t awesome.
Frost and Pegg are nerds. But until now, their nerdiness was delightfully coy. Nerd culture as a whole has followed a similar path; Now it is crassly commercial. Those who fit the moniker were often mocked for their lifestyle, but then one day, for whatever reason, video games became incredibly popular, and comic book movies made millions.
The sea change was abrupt, but nerds around the world rejoiced as their peripheral lifestyle became mainstream—and more significantly, marketable.
Nerds have become the single-most predictable demographic in the history of consumerism, and “Paul” is another product in an assembly line of cheap entertainment made to satiate the easily amused.
Frost and Pegg’s previous films—the zombie flick “Shaun of the Dead” and the action romp “Hot Fuzz”—may have been mindless on the surface, but their deconstructive approach to genre was fascinating to analyze and thrilling to watch, despite their obtuse premises.
Where those efforts stand on their own as legitimate films that simultaneously pay loving homage to their particular genre, “Paul” feels more like an extension of the Internet message boards, where so many of today’s “film buffs” are fans embarking on “Star Wars” quote fests.
The moments when “Paul” strains for profundity are even worse. Religious practices are constantly called into question with the film’s numerous references to Darwinism, but any theoretical musing by Mottola feels about as thoughtful as the boundless dick jokes that fill the script. He even goes so far as to depict Paul as a kind of Christ figure: Paul has the ability to save the lives of others with his extraterrestrial powers, despite the risk it puts on his life. Audible groans abound.
There are moments when the film is at least halfway watchable. “Paul” features a cavalcade of some of Hollywood’s funniest comedic actors, including Jane Lynch and Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig from “Saturday Night Live.” “Paul” is ultimately bogged down by its lazy and uninspired premise. There’s only so much a foul-mouthed pop culture-savvy alien can do before it all becomes tiresome.