Paul: Satirists Simon Pegg and Nick Frost

By Patrick Z. McGavin

After the pop inflected and movie mad “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” the rambunctious and freewheeling English actors and satirists Simon Pegg and Nick Frost turn their clever and frantic sensibility directly to the source with “Paul.”

The results are often funny, but only to a point.  Paradoxically, the whole proves somewhat dissatisfying given the talent involved. The movie is fun and enjoyable, but it’s also repetitive and inconsequential. “Paul” has a lot of laughs, but it is also somewhat self-annihilating. The movie is so steeped in pop references and movies, especially the works of Steven Spielberg, that for all the pleasures and fun to be had, “Paul” has precious few original insights or observations of its own.

The Britishers have turned to an American director, the very gifted Greg Mottola (“Superbad,” “Adventureland”), for the new work after previously working with English filmmaker Edgar Wright (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”). Mottola proved extremely capable in “Superbad” of developing his own sensibility working for the prolific producer Judd Apatow.

He even imports many of the same actors from that film (Seth Rogen, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio) and appropriates seemingly half the cast of Mike Judge’s unfairly overlooked workplace gem, “Extract.” As the two outsiders, British science fiction geeks on an American road trip, Pegg and Frost have a grand time as modern “de Tocquevilles,” adopting the vantage point of witty and observant chroniclers of American cultural values, political beliefs and social habits.

They have rummaged through the rabid, vulgar mix of the trashy, sentimental and mythological for their own purposes. At least that’s the utopian idea. Too often though, they riff on the tried and true, “Men in Black” films, “E.T.,“ and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,“ without fashioning their own stake or culturally different context.

After a prologue about a mysterious object crashing into a Wyoming farmhouse in 1947, the proper story opens in the present with Clive (Frost) and Graeme (Pegg) at the Comic Con convention in San Diego. Clive is a writer of science fiction stories who’s peddling his manuscript. Graeme is his illustrator (his sexually charged alien imagery is one of the movie’s running gags). In perhaps a nod to Albert Brooks’s great “Lost in America,” the two friends hit the open road in a deluxe recreational vehicle to visit the touchstones of alien conspiracy movement, like Area 51 and Roswell.

They are overeager, adolescent fantasists who appear very socially unskilled (the source of recurring gag about people constantly mistaking them for a gay couple) who, during moments of stress, speak to each other in Klingon, the language of the “Star Trek” warrior clan.

Politically, “Paul” is not going to go down very well with the Fox News crowd or the tea-party insurrectionists. The two satirists are fairly merciless in their taunting of southwestern rubes and rednecks, religious conservatives and Republicans. In the aftermath of a getaway from one such encounter at a biker bar, the two friends nearly collide with a black sedan.

Jumping out to investigate, the two are startled to confront the title character, Paul (voiced by Rogen).

The creature is a green-shaded gnome with an egg-shaped head, elongated neck and scrawny chest who’s been marooned here since his spaceship crashed more than six decades ago. He’s been advising the government on all matters extraterrestrial. When some nefarious government types (primarily embodied by Sigourney Weaver, who like the title player is largely heard) decide to alter the arrangement, Paul makes a run for it. He enlists the help of the two fellow travelers to aid his escape plot and rendezvous with emissaries from his natural habitat.

Jason Bateman plays the high-level government spook on his trail. In the best passages, Mottola and his cast find a screwball farce and nonlinear, anarchic glee that fracture the incident-packed plot. Using the chase and pursuit format of the action film, Mottola is able to tease out some funny Lauren and Hardy-like banter with the two secondary agents (Hader and Lo Truglio). He also finds some genuinely pleasant and appealing romantic rhythms to pass between Graeme and Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a local who’s transformed, politically, sexually, even verbally, by the otherworldly skills of the title interloper.

Pegg and Frost are natural and very fresh comics, both generous and funny and projecting an essential innocence and wonder that carries them through the ribald and comically shaped episodes. Their script is not always original, but it is impudent and profane and a necessary rebuke to the safe and overly caution PC culture so many typical American comedies are both heir to and imprisoned by. Like “Superbad,“ the language is wildly inappropriate at times, the swearing constant and explicit, but the movie is never vicious or scornful. The humor is often gentle (even the political barbs are rarely toxic).

“Paul” has a lot of lightly disposable, moment to moment fun (even the true God himself, Steven Spielberg contributes a very funny vocal cameo). Does it congeal and develop into something truly liberating or exciting? Not really. The movie references are fun for a while, even engaging (like a surprise acknowledgement to George Miller’s “Lorenzo’s Oil”), but rarely sharp or radical. Is it, for instance, any surprise a movie with Weaver is going to unfurl the signature line from the “Alien” franchise?

Needless to say, the personal connection that gave Mottola’s “Adventureland” such a privileged aura is nowhere to be found. It compensates with sharp timing and hard laughs. Compared to the director‘s previous work, “Paul” is more industrial, solidly upholstered and ready to please.