Even among the countless variations of extraterrestrial species encountered in decades of sci-fi moviegoing, an alien who, when moved to depart, says, "Let's bounce," is a new breed.
Paul, the title character of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's latest genre comedy, is a sarcastic stoner steeped in pop culture and busting with well-timed, crude observations. In short, he is Seth Rogen.
Rogen is the voice of Paul — a CGI-created alien with green skin and big, glassy eyes — and it's difficult to ever forget that. Though Paul has powers of healing, invisibility and thought transfer, his defining characteristics aren't his exoticism, but his normalcy. He wears cargo shorts and digs Marvin Gaye.
Two vacationing, unabashedly nerdy Brits, Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost), stumble upon Paul in their tour of Southwest America. Having started at Comic-Con, they continue in a rented RV to Area 51 and other fabled sites of paranoia.
Disheveled and adorned in "The Empire Strikes Back" T-shirts and the like, Graeme and Clive are fanboys to the tilt. Clive eagerly brandishes the sci-fi novel he wrote, with a cover featuring a woman with, well, a multiplied anatomy. Sitting in a hotel room in white robes, they remark on their maturity before the bellhop's arrival makes them squeal "Pizza!"
On the desert highway, a car comes careening past them, crashes and Paul stumbles out. Brought face-to-face with the genuine article of their make-believe ardor, Graeme and Clive are thrown ("We're on a tight schedule," one first replies), but take Paul in.
Trailing him are a handful of agents (Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio), with a higher-up (sci-fi queen Sigourney Weaver) sending commands from some unknown location. Paul, as he explains, has been on Earth for decades, allowing him to absorb culture and help it along, too.
In one scene, he's shown giving Steven Spielberg advice over the phone for "E.T." If it wasn't already clear, "Paul" is brimming with loving references to sci-fi films, from "Predator" to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." The height of these winks comes when the gang stumbles into a dive bar, where a country band is playing the Cantina Band song from "Star Wars."
Along the way, they encounter a Bible-thumping, gun-toting trailer-park nut (John Carroll Lynch) and his equally religious one-eyed daughter Ruth (the wonderful Kristen Wiig). The existence of an alien is an obvious blow to, as Paul describes it, "one world theologies" and this gives way to an interesting — and surely polarizing — subplot to the movie.
Religion is satirized with only fanatical, one-dimensional characters (Ruth wears a T-shirt of Jesus shooting Darwin and the tag line `Evolve this!'). A police officer is baffled by the thought of British police going without guns. Aggressive rednecks (David Koechner, Jesse Plemons) are compared to those from "Deliverance."
As much as America deserves parody on those scores, there's an unmistakable smugness that's crept into the humor. It's a notable misstep in the film, otherwise guided by the light touch of director Greg Mottola ("Superbad," "Adventureland"). His skill in finding comedy in the quieter moments is all the more obvious in a big production such as this.
It's the first time Pegg and Frost, who also wrote the film, have set a film in America or worked with Mottola (Edgar Wright helmed the previous films). The result is an interesting mix of British and American comedy (Jeffrey Tambor and Jane Lynch also make cameos) that mostly comes off amiably and consistently funny.
Such has been the stock in trade of Pegg and Frost, whose "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" both memorably satirized their genres (zombie and action films, respectively) while simultaneously celebrating them.
"Paul" does that for science-fiction, but falls closer to mere spoof than something of its own, too.
Still, after the soulless shoot-'em-up "Battle: Los Angeles," it's nice to find a sci-fi adventure where aliens aren't feared, but are just like us: Foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed and helpless when it comes to Marvin Gaye.
"Paul," a Universal Studios release, is rated R for language including sexual references, and some drug use. Running time: 104 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.