I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but at some point in the last few years, Fanboys have taken over the world. It used to be (or it seemed like it, at least) that nerd-friendly movies and TV shows were being made by suits just looking for an audience to cash in on. That’s different now. An entire generation of nerds grew up to be Head Nerds or Nerds with Power and they’ve created a catalog of films made by nerds, for nerds. Because of this, Fanboys have gone from the target audience to the focus of several films themselves. Whether it’s a character sporting a “Star Wars” t-shirt or an entire TV episode revolving around the music of Rush, nerd culture has become a viable market in and of itself. With that in mind, let us turn our attention to “Paul,” a movie written by and starring two well-known nerds (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) and directed by an even bigger nerd (Greg Mottola).
At the open, we find Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost), a sci-fi writer-illustrator team, making the rounds at Comic Con. After meeting their hero, Adam Shadowchild (Jeffrey Tambor), the pair sets out on an RV road trip to visit the UFO hotspots across the southwestern United States. Things get a bit too real, however, when a car crash brings them into contact with Paul (Seth Rogen), a crass alien who asks for their help in avoiding recapture. Paul has been on Earth since a crash landing 60 years ago and has stayed willingly, providing technological insight for the government and advice for sci-fi loving filmmakers (including Spielberg himself). He broke out of his prison, however, when he discovers that “The Big Guy” (no spoiler) planned to have him killed so that his alien skills, including the ability to heal, could be further examined. With a ship on its way to rescue him, Paul persuades Graeme and Clive to escort him to the rendezvous point, all the while remaining one small step ahead of an FBI agent (Jason Bateman) intent on bringing Paul back in.
The first half of “Paul” is nerdy genius at its best. What you can expect in Fanboy-made movies are inside jokes, a litany of movie references, and a genuine connection to the subject matter with which they work within. “Paul” is ripe with each of these characteristics, at times to the point of overkill. It starts strong, bringing us into the world of two extremely likeable characters. Graeme and Clive are everynerds, so to speak, the type of guy that any nerd would want to hang out with. They are endearing and the chemistry between Pegg and Frost, which has been illustrated so well in their other joint ventures (“Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”), shines through yet again here. Paul himself is quite funny, if crude and immature, and in the beginning the pieces of pop culture he is attached to, from the traditional look of extra-terrestrials to the use of his ideas in movies, are smart and easily accepted. Some of the sci-fi references are brilliant, peaking when the crew enters a Wyoming bar in which the band is playing the theme from the Mos Eisley Cantina.
After a while, though, the allure wears off. The rest of the characters are less enjoyable and more one dimensional than I would have liked. Each supporting actor, including Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, and Blythe Danner in addition to the aforementioned Bateman, have their moments and certainly provide a laugh (or three) but none are as well refined as Graeme, Clive, or Paul (to a lesser extent). I found this to be a detriment to the movie as a whole, as if these characters held the protagonists back. The writing as a whole isn’t as solid as the Pegg/Frost scripts for “Shaun” or “Fuzz.” And while the references seem fresh and fun in the beginning, after a while they become heavy-handed. Not everything needs to be a tribute to another film and the sheer number of pop culture items that are attributed to Paul is astounding. “Paul” starts to feel like a nerd version of “Forrest Gump” and I don’t mean that as a compliment. It’s all a bit tiresome, really. Mottola has a problem with ending his films, in my opinion, as I found myself once again ready for the conclusion about 20 minutes before it rolled around. All of this takes away from the overall strength of the movie and dampers the fun. I still enjoyed the majority of my time spent with “Paul” and if you’re a sci-fi/comic book nerd, there is no questioning this film’s appeal. But a tweak here and there, a shorter runtime, and fewer forced references could have made it a Fanboy smash.
Quick side note: In the row in front of my viewing party and I, there sat a single twenty-something co-ed. After approximately 50 minutes of the movie, during which she almost never stopped looking at her smart phone, one of my buddies leaned over, I assumed, to ask her to kindly stop blinding us. He pulled up short, however, and the phone use continued. After the movie ended and the girl left, my friend told us that when he had leaned over to ask her to knock it off, he noticed that she was surfing eHarmony. So here sat a reasonably attractive young female, alone, on a Friday night, at a showing of a nerdy movie, rolling through eHarmony on her phone. At this moment I was griped with both a genuine sense of “ah, sad” for the girl and an IMMEDIATE need to bust my friend’s chops for not seizing the moment and hitting on said girl. He will never live this moment down. Ever.
I could not make that story up,
Care for another opinion? Check out Film Girl Interrupted's less-annoyed take on the fun that is "Paul."