Are there two more charming geeks in film than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost? Their extraterrestrial comedy Paul puts the charm front and center, casting the duo as fanboy Britons on holiday to the San Diego Comic-Con, but it's been apparent since 2004's Shaun of the Dead, and even the BBC series Spaced before that. Geeky preoccupation in most movies and television is very often ephemeral, or lazy cultural shorthand; Pegg and Frost have built a career on an obsessiveness defined by affection.
So if anyone was going to take a crack at sending up E.T. (along with any number of other humanist '80s sci-fis in the Amblin mold) it may as well have been them. From the beginning the setup is thin: Aspiring science-fiction writer Clive (Frost) and his illustrator, Graeme (Pegg), have rented an RV, and plan on following up the Comic-Con with a tour of sites from American UFO lore, from Area 51 to Roswell and beyond. Late one night, a black sedan wrecks spectacularly on the highway in front of them, and the pair come face to face with Paul, an alien with Seth Rogen's voice and general demeanor. Wackiness, as it is prone to do, ensues.
Paul's reverence to its spiritual source material is never in question. Movie references fly furiously, most very funny and none particularly obtrusive. (An exception: Sigourney Weaver is given a key role mostly to facilitate a choice Aliens quote.) What's more, there's that soft tone of innocents adventuring: Though talk of "spaceman balls" abounds, the film is as sweet-natured as it is coarse, and so all the raunchiness comes across as cute, or at least achieves an edginess with no debt to cynicism.
As a loving riff, then, Paul is a success, but its own merits are harder to speak to. It's purportedly a love letter to Steven Spielberg (who directed or produced the bulk of the movies it draws on, and whose own voice contributes to a doubly winking aside) but shooting stars and a faithful disposition are no substitute for Spielberg's wide-eyed imagination. Paul never finds a way to elevate itself above a distractable, sci-fi-tinged road movie. Clive, Graeme, and Paul—eventually joined by cycloptic creationist Ruth (Kristen Wiig)—have a series of close calls with a team of government spooks headed by Jason Bateman, and spend the rest of the time bantering in the RV. It's entertaining, but there's no excitement to it, and certainly no wonder. Just gags, mostly.
That's not to diminish the laughs, which are solid and plentiful. The terminally overexposed Rogen is subdued enough to do good work without drawing attention to himself; Pegg and Frost, on the other hand, seem mostly to be playing themselves, for which no apologies ever need be made. (The pair are responsible for Paul's script, with Frost stepping up for his first writing credit in the absence of usual collaborator and director Edgar Wright, who might have made a better go at the Spielberg vibe than Superbad's Greg Mottola manages.) The cast is rounded out by a list of comedy ringers like Wiig, Joe Lo Truglio, and Bill Hader, who steal stray moments despite not being given the sort of defined roles in which they do their best work. Bateman, it should be said, has the opposite problem. He's become too comfortable in the deadpan that cemented his comeback, and handing the role of the heavy to a more creative choice might have been good for both the comedy and suspense.
The frustration, in the end, is that Paul understands how crucial heart is to what it's trying to achieve, and disappoints anyway. There's a bromance element to Graeme and Clive's relationship with more apparent purpose than just trend or emotional heft—again, due credit to Pegg and Frost's own rapport—and it looms nicely over the film, but doesn't amount to much at all in the end. As pleasant and generally recommendable as Paul is, it's much the same. The promise lingers even after we acknowledge it's something less than what it meant to be. It's a side effect, maybe, of that same warm geekiness, a youthful emotional response that cements fascination but can't quite be reproduced once those spaceman balls have dropped.