Monday, July 04, 2011

Paul (Gregg Mottola, 2011)

The buddies in an intimate moment in Paul


Love thy brother

What would happen if the writing team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) were to meet the acting-writing-directing team of Seth Rogen and Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland)? Such questions don't exactly keep movie viewers up all night (doesn't me), but since someone must have posed the question out loud and someone else answered that question by putting up the money and relevant people, might as well take a quick peek at the results.

It's no Shaun of the Dead (2004)--actually, not a lot of recent comedies have been as inventively funny as Shaun, which basically wrung variations off of a single concept (the British stiff upper lip remaining stiff, even in the face of a zombie apocalypse). Wasn't as big a fan of their follow-up picture Hot Fuzz (2007), though the very unlikeliness of the premise (Simon Pegg as a pistol-smokin' cop?) seemed to galvanize that picture. Director of both Shaun and Fuzz happens to be Edgar Wright, who seems to have a lock on visually ingenious comedies--one only has to remember Shaun and his gang's encounter with his best friend and her gang, or the great shot of Shaun walking through his daily morning routine the day after the world ended, or check Wright's use of digital video game effects in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to see what I'm talking about.

Paul's director Gregg Mottola is from the (for want of a better term) 'slacker generation'--he seems fond of doing character-driven comedies with plenty of profanity and a casual, easygoing, ganga-puffing--slacker, in short--vibe. It's visually sloppy, with a comic timing that can only be charitably described as inebriated; you miss the snap Wright can give to this material (hell, I miss the snap Wright could have given something like Superbad or Adventureland).

What does seem to improve despite Mottola's somewhat limp direction--what makes Paul, after all is said and done, a worthwhile endeavor after all--is the central relationship between Pegg and Frost. "Bromance" hardly describes what they have going here: a pair of friends so thoroughly at ease with each other they resemble a long-married couple more than anything else (the passion having died years ago, to leave a warm, lasting glow). Shaun captured this best; the actors were simply playing themselves only with zombies involved, and even when zombies finally got in the way--well, you know what they say in vampire movies nowadays. Love never dies.

That's what went wrong in Hot Fuzz--Pegg and Frost were so much themselves onscreen in Shaun they probably felt they had to move away from that, hence the introduction of Pegg's 'supercop' character. And Pegg just having met Frost isn't as much fun as catching them together after many years, ringing jokes off of their comfort level with each other ("I'm sorry Shaun." "That's okay." "No, I'm sorry Shaun." "Oh God, that's rotten!" "I'll stop doing it when you stop laughing." "I'm not laughing!").

Glad to say they're back in 'together for many years' mode, with Paul; better yet, they're together on the geekiest of causes: the search for alien intelligence. From SF convention to actual desert (Area 51, to be precise), the action couldn't be more suited to drawing the pair closer together, in near-marital bliss. Even Paul the alien can't get between the two, at least not at first; he has to resort to disappearing tricks, magic healing powers, profanity, beer guzzling, and the occasional amusing anecdote ("Agent Mulder was right!" "Agent Mulder was my idea!"). Seth Rogen--Mottola's longtime collaborator--fits in nicely as the eponymous alien, annoying and endearing in equal measure, the street-smart wise-ass potty-mouth steeped in pop culture (having invented a good deal of it himself, including providing Steven Spielberg the inspiration for his lost-alien movies) who helps two naive geeks navigate the shoals of middle America.

It's no Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); it's definitely no E.T. (1982)--the movie's a touch sharper than that (and would have been sharper still, I can't help but imagine, if Wright had been available). It's also no Cloverfield (2008), where the alien is merely some gigantic hulking man-hungry lobster barely glimpsed at through a videocam, and definitely no Gremlins 2--arguably the sharpest, most media-savvy satire on aliens ever made, if said critters could actually qualify as aliens (they don't, and that's too bad). Call Paul a road movie with an alien in tow, said alien sitting behind an ole married couple still bickering, still together, still genially funny and fun to be with after all their years together. I could think of worse ways to waste two hours of my time. 

First printed in Businessworld, 6.2.11 

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