As a general rule, comedy and cash don’t make for a good mix. The cheaper the film, the stronger the script has to be – just watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or (though no-one did) Evan Almighty. By now, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost should really know this. Shaun of the Dead, still their best film, was also their cheapest, and from there the price of their films has climbed while the quality has declined. Now they’ve written their first film together (Pegg usually writes with Edgar Wright), and it’s disappointingly average.
Paul follows Graeme and Clive, two nerds on a road trip across the alien hotspots of America. Before long, they run across the eponymous alien, voiced by Seth Rogen, who has been living secretly on Earth for decades, advising film-makers about alien technology. At the press conference afterwards, Pegg is proud of this idea, as it allows them to ‘retroactively rip everything off by saying it was all Paul’s idea. It’s very clever, when you think about it.’ Paul needs their help to get him to his ship and escape the planet before the secret service catch him and cut out his brain. Along the way, they pick up Ruth (Kristen Wiig), the naïve daughter of a Creationist as they try to escape Jason Bateman’s emotionless, sunglasses-wearing agent.
If nothing else, Pegg and Frost have incredible on-screen chemistry, which the former attributes to their genuine friendship: ‘Nick and I were best friends before we were colleagues, so we channelled a bit of our own little bromance.’ The tender, loving looks they exchange, the lingering of a hand on the other’s shoulder for just a bit too long – these little gestures elevate their relationship above mere laddy banter. However, their comic sensibilities are unavoidably British, and their quaint jokes about tea-making sit ill-at-ease with Rogen’s pot-smoking alien slacker, who (as is typical of Rogen) always seems to be laughing at his own jokes more than the audience.
As a road movie, it inevitably moves at a fair old pace, but the frenetic forward momentum of the plot makes the film seem slapdash rather than exciting. Most glaringly, they choose to give Ruth her own road away from Damascus moment, and in a split-second revelation, she loses her faith. Though her subsequent indulgences in naïve swearing offer some of the film’s funniest moments – including the immortal line, ‘Get away from me you vaginas’ – Paul never quite recovers from this U-turn in the plot.
Much of the blame lies with the direction. Both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz had a genuine charm to them, yet here this is lost. Instead, we get the slick but unadventurous guiding hand of Greg Mottola, of Superbad fame, and the result is a visually bland film. Paul himself is a convincingly rendered CGI character, but the film as a whole never really engages as it could. The nerdy eagerness of Frost and Pegg to cram their script with as many sci-fi references and nods as possible eventually drags the whole film down, while the style seems too weighed down by its budget to try anything truly original.