Monday, March 21, 2011

My Friend Paul

I think I realize now why I didn't love Shaun of the Dead when I first saw it. When the zombie-comedy film, co-starring English comedians Simon Pegg and Nick Frost first reached our shores back in 2004, I wasn't in the theaters to see it. I honestly don't remember what I was up to about that time, but despite so many around me raging about how great it was, I safely managed to completely avoid the film release. A year or so later, I finally rented the DVD and despite (or perhaps because of) the tons of positive hype I'd received from friends and acquaintances that this was one of the funniest movies they'd ever seen, I found myself unenthused by some of the obscure jokes and inane plot threads. That's not to say I didn't LIKE Shaun; not at all, I liked it very much. I just didn't LOVE it like so many around me seemed to. So underwhelmed was I by this that I skipped the duo's next collaboration, 2007's Hot Fuzz, altogether, and only in 2009's Star Trek reboot did I see either of the actors (Pegg) perform in another film. So it wasn't with a ton of excitement that led me to seeing science fiction comedy Paul last night. Instead, I decided that the trailers looked good enough, the buzz was big enough, and enough time had passed that I would be willing to give another Pegg/Frost film a shot, even knowing the lackluster Seth Rogen had a role to play. My low expectations then made it that much sweeter when the film proved to be much more than I could have imagined.

The Battle of Helm's Deep re-enactment hit a few snags: nerds
Starting at the last place you would ever expect a film to begin (San Diego's famous Comic-Con), we meet Graeme and Clive (Pegg and Frost), a writer/illustrator duo enamored with all things science fiction. Visiting the United States for the first time, the duo follow up the San Diego stint with a road trip of the US's most famous UFO sites, including Area 51 and the Black Mailbox. They expected to have a fun time. What they DIDN'T expect was to accidentally meet Paul (voice of Rogen), a big-headed "gray" alien who need their help. Paul just escaped from Area 51's lock-down facility in which he'd been held for decades, and must escape to a rendezvous point before the government agents led by Special Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) can catch up with him and bring the little guy back for dissection.

Headlamps for under $10? I've got to call this in!
The film does a lot of stuff right, and the main reason for that can be attributed to the amazing script written by the film's stars. While the film drags a little bit in the opening, it does make for a nice enough opener and allows those who might not be familiar with the Comic-Con experience to catch a glimpse of what they're missing. Once the duo get on the road and meet their extraterrestrial wingman, however, the film manages to take off and the excitement is perfectly paced throughout. The film doesn't fall in the trap of being too serious, however, as the comedy is solid throughout, with only repeated jokes as to the duo's questioned sexuality failing to inspire much mirth. Director Greg Mottola did his share of work, and while his penchant for potty humor and sight gags is still here, so is his ability to make fun characters connect a-la Superbad. In all, he makes the perfect companion to Pegg and Frost, with all three seemingly on the same page for most of the film.

Obviously though the sign said "No PANTS, No Shoes, No Service"
The best however is the film's unabashed nerdism. There are obvious scenes that are easy to pick out, from Steven Spielberg's cameo and a redneck bar whose band is playing the famous "Cantina Theme" from Star Wars, but the film truly draws from the lesser-known geekery every chance it gets. When you see Graeme wearing a tee-shirt with the comic character Invincible on it or when Clive mutters in his sleep "Boomer, it's forbidden," the true comic and sci-fi nerd can't help but smile at the references. The film doesn't treat these fans as jokes, either; fans of sci-fi and fantasy comics, shows and films have never been shown so much respect from a big-budget Hollywood film, at least not since 1999's Galaxy Quest. Pegg and Frost are as large fans as could be conceived, but neither are portrayed as simple or one-note characters. They're complex creatures with wants, needs and flaws, as far from comic nerd cliches as you can get.

Things were so simple on Arrested Development...
Speaking of Pegg and Frost, their hard work and respect for the subject matter really shows in their performances here. Pegg's acting isn't notably special, but he comes off believably as an artistic nerd who finds himself in a situation he would have thought impossible only days ago. Frost I had expected to dislike, as his sluggish character in Shaun was one of the main reasons I didn't come away a believer. However, he's much more sympathetic here, and in fact manages to steal the spotlight on several occasions. He's simply more fleshed out (no pun intended) and more likely someone you'd want to hang out with. The fraternity between the two stars is obvious, and they work together so charmingly that I'm not sure I want to see them in anything else if the other wasn't present. Some of the film's best bits can safely be attributed to the arrival of Kristen Wiig on the scene as a long-suffering creationist Christian who's mind is blown upon meeting the little grey man. Wiig might be close to graduating from the house at 30 Rockefeller Plaza to become a legitimate Hollywood star, and she's got the comedic timing and talent to make it work. I was worried Bateman would play the straight guy too well, but he puts in a solid performance as Agent Zoil, strong and unpredictable to the end. The weakest parts of the cast were probably the film's sub-villains, most notable Bill Heder and Joe Lo Trugilo as Zoil's subordinates, who don't even come off as half-competent as government agents. Blythe Danner and Jane Lynch even make for nice scenes as colorful characters on the path the film takes. But it's Seth Rogen as the titular hero who's the true surprise. Rogen, who I pretty much dislike in everything I've seen, manages to be the PERFECT voice for the foul-mouthed alien, and I was genuinely pleased with the character's range and Rogen's ability to carry the load.

E.T. phone HOME! Big time.
The reason I didn't love Shaun of the Dead became clear to me as I watched Paul's closing credits: for all the good Shaun presented, I just wasn't really a fan of zombie movies at the time, and so much of of what was so innovative about the film went over my head. With Paul's much more appealing medium, I now realize that Pegg and Frost are, like me and so many others, just fans who make films about what they love. While I didn't connect with Shaun's zombie comedy (and with my respect for Zombieland, I wonder if that would change should I try again?), Paul's love letter to fandom was much better received.. With the slow opening going against it's otherwise perfect narrative, it comes in trailing only The Adjustment Bureau at #2 for 2011. A well-written, funny as hell celebration of Sci-fi and fantasy, I would recommend it to anyone out there, though it'll be the real, unashamed nerds who get the best experience out of it.

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