Two-hundred-thirty-five years after the United States declared its independence from Great Britain, the two countries reunite through cinema with Paul, which features the talents of English comedic heavyweights Simon Pegg and Nick Frost alongside Americans Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jason Bateman and Bill Hader. OK, Rogen is actually Canadian, but Director Greg Mottola lives amid purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain. Pegg and Frost play Comic-Con diehards who encounter a rude alien on their road trip to Area 51 and agree to let him hitch a ride. Paul is certainly not the best work of its principal actors and could have used a few more laughs, but cinefiles will appreciate the near-constant references to classic science-fiction and adventure films.
Buddies Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost) intend to cap their trip to America for Comic-Con 2009 by renting an RV and traveling the American West to visit sites of reported extraterrestrial activity. As luck would have it, they run into a real alien, freshly escaped from government custody, named Paul, who looks exactly like the stock images of aliens that litter lunch boxes and children's toys. Paul attributes this similarity to a government effort to make the transition easier on earthlings should they ever encounter a member of his race. Graeme is fascinated by Paul and quickly invites him to join the party. Clive is concerned that the pair will be probed. As the guys roll through arid desert landscape, government agents get wind that the escaped alien is riding with two nerds from England.
Pegg and Frost are best known for writing the smashing imports Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. For Paul, the pair abandons director Edgar Wright for Mottola, who scored big with Superbad, in which Rogen has a secondary role. Shaun of the Dead did more than hint that Pegg and Frost love American science fiction and horror cinema, but Paul absolutely affirms their passion for all things Star Wars and Spielberg. Starting the film at Comic-Con is a clever explanation for Graeme and Clive's willingness to drive around to sites like Roswell, New Mexico, for a glimpse of some American alien lore. It's clear Paul is a love letter of sorts to the Comic-Con faithful, and Frost, Pegg and Mottola clearly get this devoted crowd.
Because Paul is, first and foremost, a comedy, it's important to discuss whether or not it is actually funny. The short answer is yes, but it could be funnier. Fans of all three lead actors know each has sharp wit and sidesplitting jokes in reserve, but Paul is surprisingly tempered. Sure, the film earns its R rating by supplying Paul with a filthy mouth, but it tends to overuse the profanity-as-a-joke routine and skip out on actual wit. Of course there are the requisite cracks about probing and a far-overused running joke about Graeme and Clive being mistaken for a homosexual couple. I can see how this bit is simply commiserating humor aimed at pasty film junkies tired of such familiar, baseless taunts, but the joke quickly gets stale. The creation vs. evolution storyline involving Wiig's evangelical Christian character comes off as a bit forced, too, but Wiig is a welcome addition to the proceedings.
While its comedic timing falters in spots, Paul excels with its nonstop nods to cinema lore. Paul is a film for those that love fantastical cinema, and there are references to everything from Star Wars to Indiana Jones. In one clever bit, Paul is seen advising Steven Spielberg on his upcoming family alien adventure while in government custody during the '80s. There is also a fun appearance by alien-slayer Sigourney Weaver, and anyone taunted for loving this type of cinema too much will find comfortable refuge in Paul.
As expected, Frost and Pegg bring their slacker charm hard, and Rogen is a great voice for Paul, who benefits from some excellent animation. Paul looks about as realistic as a three-foot green alien can, and his character is expressive and very mobile. Bateman and Hader, as competing FBI agents, bring their usual comedic chops without overstepping the bounds of their characters, and Focker mom Blythe Danner has a small role as Paul's longest acquaintance. As a road-trip comedy, Paul slightly underwhelms in the comedy department, but makes up for it with a warm familiarity with American cinema and its devoted fans.
Universal's 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer for Paul is another winner for the studio, which has been putting out some stellar new releases as of late. Mottola and cinematographer Lawrence Sher give the film a somewhat flat, dusty appearance, which emulates both the pages of a comic book and frames of '70s science fiction films. Even with this style, detail is plentiful throughout each frame, particularly in wide shots of the landscape, and texture is readily apparent in the image. Blacks are deep and crisp, skin tones are natural and colors are surprisingly bold. The transfer also does an excellent job meshing live action with the CGI Paul, who never appears out of place. Contrast can be a bit subdued, and there's a bit of noise here and there, but no digital manipulation is present.
The film's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack also is superb. Sounds are rich and enveloping, and dialogue never is overwhelmed by the score or effects portion of the track. Paul features a ton of directional dialogue and effects, and these bounce throughout the sound field with ease. There's a deep LFE during the action and one huge explosion, and the score is quite pronounced. English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles are available, as are French and Spanish 5.1 DTS tracks.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Paul arrives on Blu-ray as a two-disc "combo pack" that includes the film in high definition, along with a DVD and digital copy. The discs are housed in a standard Blu-ray case, which is wrapped in a shiny, slightly embossed slipcover.
The Blu-ray includes two versions of the film: unrated (1:49:18) and theatrical (1:43:48). I saw Paul in theaters, and the unrated version only inserts a few surplus bits that add little to the proceedings. The extras are plentiful for Paul, and fans of the film should enjoy the material available on the Blu-ray. The only thing missing is a section of deleted scenes, but it's hard to complain in light of everything else you get here.
Between the Lightning Strikes: The Making of Paul (40:04) is the best extra by far. This two-part documentary covers production from inception to release, and includes interviews with the cast and crew and ample behind-the-scenes footage. Pegg and Frost share their love for science fiction films, as does Mottola, who reveals that Paul marks his first shot at directing a film rooted in his favorite genre. The documentary also provides glimpses of Rogen becoming Paul through the motion-capture process, and filmmakers reveal that Paul was initially conceived as a grumpy, elderly alien. Even if you're unmoved by the film, this is an interesting feature.
If any information was left unsaid in the documentary, it's likely covered in the behind-the-scenes featurettes (62:49 total). Some information is duplicated, but these segments further explore the animation of Paul, location scouting, special effects and the cast. Segments include "RV Doorway: The Cast of Paul on Location," "Runaway Santa Fe: An Interview with Nancy Steiner," "Smithereens," "5th Date Level Direction: The Cast on Greg Mottola," "Mexico Zero: The Locations of Paul," "The Many Pauls," "Paul the Musical," and "The Traveler Beagle."
You can watch the theatrical version with audio commentary from Greg Mottola, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Bill Hader and producer Nira Park. This is a decent track, and, as expected, Pegg and Frost are very funny. Much of the information on the production is also presented in the behind-the-scenes featurettes, so choose your poison.
In The Evolution of Paul (15:05), director Mottola, animators and effects supervisors discuss the film's title character and detail how they created a realistic fantasy creature from scratch. Rogen seems especially amused that so much work went into creating such a raucous character.
Simon's Silly Faces (1:20) is a reel of, you guessed it, Pegg making funny faces that is not as funny as the bloopers (10:51).
Who the Hell is Adam Shadowchild? (2:10) is a short piece on the fictional author played by Jeffrey Tambor in the film. This throwaway extra features clips from the movie spliced together in an attempt to illustrate the work of the faux writer.
Also included are photo, storyboard and poster galleries, a host of UK and US trailers and TV spots, a BD-Live portal, My Scenes bookmarking feature and D-BOX Motion Code.
The talents of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Seth Rogen are not wasted in Director Greg Mottola's Paul, about a pair of Comic-Con fanatics who pick up a hitchhiking alien in the desert. The comedy sputters a bit in this road-trip adventure, but Paul has a distinct affection for American science fiction and fantasy cinema, and cinefiles will revel in the frenzy of shout-outs to classic genre films. Universal's stellar Blu-ray turns a good film into a great buy with its excellent picture and sound and laundry list of interesting bonus features. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.