"Paul" is innocuous extraterrestrial fun, but should have been funnier given the caliber of its cast and crew. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the British bosom buddies who previously collaborated with Edgar Wright on genre send-ups "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz," pen their first screenplay, which lovingly pays tribute to a half century of science fiction moviemaking.
The target audience for "Paul" is old enough to appreciate an homage to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and will recognize odd dialogue torn from "Star Wars" and "Aliens," and yet much of the humor skews juvenile. For every gallon drawn from the cultural lexicon, there is a runoff of infantile attempts at comedy—Kristen Wiig as a Jesus Freak spouting tin-eared strings of mismatched expletives is one of the worst offenders.
Thankfully, with a brisk pace and a stacked cast—bit parts are filled by greats like Jeffrey Tambour and Jane Lynch—the momentum rarely falters. Pegg and Frost play the leads, a pair of English geeks on holiday to Comic-Con, one RV rental away from a tour of America's kitschiest UFO tourist traps. While on an otherwise deserted stretch of moonlit highway however, they witness an epic car crash and meet the genuine article—an E.T. colloquially called Paul, voiced by comedian Seth Rogen. Less sci-fi parody than offbeat road film, the trio become fast friends on the lam from Paul's governmental pursuers. Jason Bateman of "Arrested Development" fame makes a convincing turn as a badass man in black.
And yet for all the talent on board, "Paul" is short on funny. It's an easy hour and forty minutes, but the laugh out loud moments are few and far between. In addition to being the weakest Pegg/Frost flick, "Paul" is an equally underwhelming effort from director Greg Mottola, who previously helmed the hilarious high school comedy "Superbad" and the surprisingly poignant self-authored "Adventureland." Mottola brings a visual acuity to the proceedings, including an earnest prologue that recalls the Spielbergian charm of yesteryear, but such stylistic flourishes are ultimately abandoned in favor of conventional comedy over-lighting.
"Paul" never really feels like Mottola's film. He does manage to elevate Frost and Pegg's material from a directorial standpoint, but too often it's all too apparent that the authors are but fledgling storytellers. Occasionally, their lack of traditional screenwriting experience works to their advantage, and their offbeat sensibility is part of what makes the film endearing in spite of its flaws. Rather than embrace their status as Hollywood outsiders however, Frost and Pegg attempt to emulate American studio output. The result is an unusual comedy worth seeking out, but one with a serious identity crisis on its hands.
Hit and miss high jinks and bipolarity aside, Frost, Pegg, and Mottola are having too good a time to harp incessantly on where they went wrong. Gifted creatives all, even their lesser successes are more amusing and original that the lion's share of their competition. Science fiction diehards should be especially satisfied with "Paul," which taps the nostalgia spigot for all it's worth with a plethora of in-jokes and surprises. The film may not rival the early work of any of the constituent creators, but it's still worthy of their legacy. It's just hard not to wish this extraterrestrial outing was more, well, extraordinary.