The English comedy team Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who brilliantly satirized zombie movies in Shaun of the Dead and buddy-cop flicks in Hot Fuzz, gave audiences huge laughs and gave themselves an extremely hard act to follow.
The pair's third film, Paul, feels episodic, haphazard, more hit-and-miss onslaught than hilarious marksmanship. It pays homage to science fiction, manhunts, road movies, stoner comedies and fanboy culture. The in-jokes come fast and scattershot, citing Battlestar Galactica, Aliens and all things Spielberg. But the film loses it with strained references to Titanic, The Blues Brothers and even the incest documentary Capturing the Friedmans.
The most crucial stumble, however, is structural. Rather than driving the story, Pegg and Frost become bystanders in a story about a runaway extraterrestrial.
Pegg and Frost play Graeme and Clive, aspiring comic-book creators with bad haircuts, limited social skills and T-shirts with comic-book motifs. They revel in the nerd nirvana of Comic-Con, and they take an RV on the open road on a tour of UFO sites in the Southwest.
The Englishmen feel a little alien in the United States, but things get seriously weird near Area 51. After a close encounter with Paul, a friendly little green man in a stolen government sedan, the pair agree to help him escape from the secret military compound where he's been confined for 60 years.
Soon they're on a life-and-death run from FBI Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman), angry rednecks and a vengeful daddy (John Carroll Lynch) whose daughter Ruth (Kristen Wiig) they have more or less kidnapped. The ensemble is not bad, but they consign Pegg and Frost to the sidelines when they should be front and center.
Missteps aside, there are lots of good ideas packed into the movie. Cool dude Paul (voiced, of course, by Seth Rogen) is quite comfortable with human culture; he's more down-to-earth than his British guardians. As he teaches them to shed their British reserve, relax and live in the moment, diffident Clive falls for Ruth, a sheltered fundamentalist Christian whose world is upended by her encounter with extraterrestrial life. When Paul zaps Ruth with a vision of the universe that refutes her dogma, she decides to break every commandment, but she can't get much beyond attempts to coin new swear words.
The culture clashes are nicely handled, too. The Brits consider themselves "men of science." They regard the biblical literalists they encounter much the way Paul sees humans in general: odd primates. The script's saber-sharp atheist humor adds a jolt of social satire. Yet viewers who know what happened to the Bible's Paul will appreciate an added layer of irony.
And with American director Greg Mottola at the helm, there's a sweetness of tone that distinguishes Paul from the duo's earlier work. Paul brims with affection for its characters, even as they become mere stick figures in a swirl of action.