Part bromance, part sci-fi spoof and all a bit disappointing, “Paul” hits the road with two English nerds on vacation (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”) who befriend a hard-partying alien from outer space (voiced by Seth Rogen). In theory, Rogen and helmer Greg Mottola’s laconic stoner style should’ve meshed well with the Brits’ tongue-in-cheeky approach. In practice, the cogs jam somewhat, resulting in fitfully funny but anodyne entertainment. Nevertheless, pic did stellar biz (well over $8 million) in its first week in Blighty, and could perform solidly Stateside when it opens March 18.
Visiting Comic-Con in San Diego, aspiring illustrator Graeme Willy (Pegg) and wannabe sci-fi writer Clive Gollings (Frost) are in geek heaven, especially when they meet their idol, Adam Shadowchild (Jeffrey Tambor, in a droll cameo). After the convention, they take a road trip in a rented RV, planning to visit all the Southwest’s most famous UFO hot spots, from Nevada’s Area 51 to Roswell, N.M.
En route, they almost collide with another car that runs off the road. The driver turns out to be laidback dude-from-another-planet Paul, who, with his huge eyes, massive head and spindly body, looks exactly like the classic small, gray aliens of yore — apart from his cargo shorts, that is. Assuring Graeme and Clive that he’s in trouble and needs help, and promising that he has no intention of anally probing them, Paul hitches a ride.
Action cuts between the guys in the RV and Paul’s pursuers, another trio made up of hardass Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) and two goofy rookies, Haggard (Bill Hader) and O’Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio), whose own development is just as arrested as Graeme and Clive’s.
Although it transpires that Paul is on his way to rejoin his mothership, there’s little sense of urgency as he, Graeme and Clive make pit stops along the way. Tension is generated only by whether or not someone else will glimpse Paul; at one stop, Clive becomes smitten with Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), a shy, sheltered fundamentalist Christian with a clouded eye, and they end up kidnapping her in the nicest possible way when she accidentally spots the alien.
One of the winning things about Pegg’s scripts for “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” (which he co-wrote with helmer Edgar Wright), was the way they managed to riff on the genres they spoofed while still delivering sympathetic, reasonably rounded characters, particularly ones whose heroics were undercut by their exaggeratedly mild English manners. The screenplay for “Paul,” credited to co-stars Pegg and Frost, sticks largely to the same formula, but the transplant to American soil hasn’t proved quite as fertile. Despite a few laugh-out-loud moments, the hit-miss ratio is lower this time around, perhaps due to Wright’s absence. Although the gags never push film in-jokes to the absurd levels of the “Scary Movie” franchise and its ilk, sometimes the nudges (such as numerous references to Steven Spielberg, who literally phones in a cameo) serve to show off the filmmakers’ range of references rather than to further the story.
Meanwhile, the edgy-slackerish sensibility Rogen and Mottola might have been expected to bring to the party lacks the spontaneity of their previous collaborations, “Superbad” and TV series “Undeclared.” Certainly this feels like a bit of a regression for Mottola, taking on a studio work-for-hire after his underrated indie “Adventureland,” while Rogen, constrained by a more-or-less voice-only perf (his movements and expressions have been replicated somewhat for Paul’s animation), sounds like he’s on autopilot.
It’s Wiig who impresses most here with a bravura display of comic timing and some of the filthiest lines in the film (once she learns to cuss, Ruth goes at it with a vengeance). Her character’s sudden disavowal of intelligent design and embrace of hedonism is clunkily written, but the thesp manages to put it across with verve.
Pic is executed with pro polish. Combo of CGI and puppetry to create the charmingly designed Paul is seamless, although the thesps don’t always convincingly pretend that they’re interacting with a character they can actually see, instead of a tennis ball on a stick to create eyeline matches.