With Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, and the voice of Seth Rogen. Directed by Greg Mottola. Rated R for language including sexual references, and some drug use. 104 minutes.
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost should be very careful in the films they make. When they script the films themselves we get “Shaun Of The Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” two hilarious movie spoofs which gave us strong characters mixed in with the laughs. Pegg, on his own, has had varied luck scoring in “Star Trek” (as Scotty) but going down in flames in “Run Fatboy Run” and “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People.”
With PAUL, the two are back in control, although this time without “Shaun” director Edgar Wright. Instead, they’re teamed with Greg Mottola (“Superbad,” “Adventureland”) for what turns out to be the best science fiction comedy since “Galaxy Quest.” In fact, this is just the latest in what has been a surprisingly strong season of science fiction movies, which makes one wonder if Hollywood finally gets it. Yes, “Paul” is a special effects film – but not obviously so – and, as with “Shaun” and “Fuzz,” is deeply invested in its characters.
Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are two British science fiction fans making a pilgrimage to the San Diego ComicCon, the Valhalla of geekdom. After meeting their hero (a hilarious cameo by Jeffrey Tambor) they hit the road to go see famous sites of supposed alien visitation. Along the way they meet an actual space alien, who goes by the name of Paul (voice of Seth Rogen). He’s escaped from a government facility where he’s been held captive for decades and, just like E.T. and Starman, needs to get to a rendezvous point to reconnect with his people. After initial confusion, this becomes the dream adventure of a lifetime for the two fans, who have to help Paul elude a team of government agents headed up by the relentless Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman).
Along the way they encounter a wide variety of people and situations, from UFO-themed diners to angry rednecks to a religious right family who rail against evolution. It is in the latter instance that they meet Ruth (Kristen Wiig), whose belief system is shattered when confronted with Paul. She soon joins them on the mad race to the meeting place before the government can recapture the alien.
By casting Rogen as the voice of Paul, it guarantees that he will be an offbeat slacker from outer space. His super-science allows him to perform seeming miracles – with unexpected results – and his counsel is valuable not only to the United States government but to a certain director of science fiction movie epics. Critics who pick up on the genre references but nothing else will miss the whole point of the movie. As with “Galaxy Quest,” it’s a sendup done with real affection and with the odd notion that those advanced aliens may be just as big a bunch of goofballs as we are.
Pegg and Frost play their parts to perfection, precisely because they’re not mocking fandom. They’re acknowledging they’re part of it, and that everyone is a fan of something. This is a spoof from the inside out, which is why there’s none of the “get a load of those sci-fi weirdos” attitude that you often find when outsiders look at this world. “Paul” is a laugh-out-loud comedy that asks what would happen if the aliens weren’t like the monsters of “Battle: Los Angeles,” but more like your stoner friends from school. It’s not a sure thing as to which would lead to the wilder adventure.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.