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Coming to America may have been a mistake for English funnymen Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. While we Yanks are always happy to welcome talented folk to our shores, the duo’s maiden American effort, Paul, isn’t up to the hilarious standard set by their earlier movies. Paul, a humans-meet-alien comedy, opens in theaters on Friday.
Given their track record, that’s a disappointment. Pegg made his name, both as a writer and as a co-star with Frost, by transplanting American genre films onto his native British soil: 2004’s Shaun of the Dead spoofed zombie movies and 2007’s Hot Fuzz made relentless fun of bullet-drenched, action-fueled, police buddy flicks.
While the roots for those two comedies were in Hollywood, the execution was very definitely English. In Shaun, Pegg and Frost had to combat zombies who guzzled at pubs and cut into queues. Added bonus: familiar and beloved UK thespians like Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton popped up in supporting parts. In Fuzz, Pegg and Frost’s would-be macho cops were stuck in a small, rural village and had to deal with such hardcore criminals as an escaped swan. (Frost, imitating its honk, was priceless.) As co-stars, Fuzz boasted Nighy yet again, plus Martin Freeman (BBC America’s The Office) and Billie Whitelaw.
Now, Pegg and Frost have crossed the Atlantic and gone Hollywood. Presumably, they received the big bucks for Paul. If only the big laughs had followed.
In Paul, a loose-limbed road picture directed by Greg Mottola (Adventureland, Superbad), Pegg and Frost portray Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings, respectively. This pair of British geeks has flown to America on holiday, first to attend that annual apotheosis of fanboy pride, the Comic-Con in San Diego, and then to cruise about the southwest in a rented RV, visiting sites of supposed UFO sightings and alien invasions.
No sooner have they hit the road than they meet a real live, E.T.-lookalike: Paul. (The character is created via CGI animation, with Seth Rogen providing his voice.) He’s small, bare-chested, clad in cargo shorts and carries a backpack. He smokes (more than just tobacco) and curses with enthusiasm. Paul begs the British duo’s help in eluding an evil federal law enforcement official so that he might return to his home planet.
The movie, co-written by Pegg and Frost, aims its weak satirical arrows at multiple, albeit, familiar targets. First, there are fanboys (Clive is writing a sci-fi graphic novel and Graeme is illustrating it; the cover features a sexy, green-hued Amazon with three breasts, a feature which causes every male who views it to exclaim, “Awesome!”). Alien movie classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and the Alien series also come in for ribbing. So do the de rigueur conventions of road movies, including an encounter with a colorful waitress (played by Jane Lynch) at a diner, a brawl with local yokels, and brushes with a bumbling law officer (Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader) and a religious zealot (SNL’s Kristen Wiig).
The movie does offer a nod to the Britishness of its leads: they refer to Kleenex as “tissues” and keep Marmite in the fridge of the RV. And I doubt any American leading man, even a comic one, would allow his character to be written as being prone to wet his pants at moments of high stress, as Frost does here.
Those moments are fleeting, however. Unlike Pegg and Frost’s earlier movies, there’s nothing distinctive or particularly English about Paul. It could have featured Michael Cera and Jonah Hill in the leads and it likely would have played the same. Paul isn’t dreadful or embarrassingly bad, it’s just not especially good. And from Pegg and Frost, one expected better.
Hot Fuzz trailer: