It goes without question that Hollywood should cater to the appetites of their audiences, but the new film 'Paul' suggests that, at least commercially speaking, maybe they shouldn't always cater to the same one. Over the course of the past decade, the moviemaking industry has devoted increasing resources (both creativity and cash) to wooing fan boys and genre fans, but Greg Mottola's latest film actually feels too specifically engineered for them: overloaded (in a great way) with sci-fi, movie and pop-culture references, its niche specificity celebrates geek culture in a way that it seems like few mainstream viewers will identify with, unfortunately overshadowing what is an otherwise imperfect but funny and genuinely sweet story.
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost star as Graeme and Clive, two British sci-fi fans who rent an RV and head to the United States for Comic-Con and, eventually, a tour of all of the prominent UFO-associated locations in the Midwest. While out on the open road, they witness an automobile accident, and subsequently discover that the driver is none other than an extraterrestrial being named Paul (Seth Rogen).
Surprisingly, Paul is considerably more gregarious than the mysterious little green men of alien myth, and he enlists Graeme and Clive to help him reconnect with his people. But when a government agent (Jason Bateman) and two deputies (Bill Hader and Joe LoTruglio) follow their RV in an attempt to recapture Paul, Graeme and Clive find themselves on a race against time to get Paul to safety before the authorities close in on them.
Although many of its references are truly funny and more importantly, more understated than a movie whose movie literacy is based on the single biggest phenomenon in movie history, there's an overwhelming feeling in much of 'Paul' that there's not a lot of "there" there. Other than a sort of frivolous chase plot that feels predestined to have a happy ending, there's no emotional core to connect the audience with the characters. There's a lot of amusement to be had in the interim, but not much to invest in with the codependent relationship between two mid-thirtysomething comic book geeks trying to help a wisecracking alien rendezvous with other beings from his home planet.
Suffice it to say that in many ways, the premise for 'Paul' borrows from one of the all-time greatest science-fiction films, 'E.T. The Extraterrestrial,' not the least of which in the way that this messianic outsider Paul inadvertently helps these lost souls find themselves and figure a few things out. But the difference between Spielberg's film and Mottola's is that the protagonist of 'E.T.' was at a crucial moment in his life to have this sort of experience, and Graeme and Clive are sort of at a pathetic one; even as a regular attendee of Comic-Con and certainly a sci-fi fan well-versed with the majority of the references in the film, there's something sort of pathetic about two fully grown men whose lives revolve around (and don't have any discernible shape or purpose) attending the annual geekfest.
While it's entirely understandable that Pegg and Frost, who wrote the script, wanted to play the main roles themselves, their advancing age does the characters a disservice, because comparatively, watching children, adolescents or even twentysomethings have epiphanies about their lives is understandable, and even sympathetic, and these are people who by most conventional definitions should have more stable and grown-up lives.
Again, however, while viewers may not particularly respect the duo's puerile obsession with three-boobed superheroines and jargon-heavy fantasy book series, the always-talented Pegg and Frost bring a predictable level of earnestness to Clive and Graeme's geekery, and as a whole they're sweet, well-meaning guys, and certainly by Comic-Con standards socially developed enough to get by without wanting to subject them to atomic wedgies. Meanwhile as Paul, Rogen brings a remarkable sharpness, and also a world-weariness to his character that makes him more than a CGI accessory to the live-action characters. And Kristen Wiig, as a religious fundamentalist who gets kidnapped by the fellas, manages to be the heart and soul of the film's transition from trivia-fest to something, well, if not totally resonant, then at least more emotionally-substantive.
Again, however, it seems tough not to ask the question, who is this movie for? A few years ago I would certainly have said myself, frolicked in references to 'Captain Eo' characters and reimagined Cantina Band theme songs, and been fully satisfied. But at an age myself at which such a lifestyle seems vaguely silly, if not irresponsible, and absolutely having enjoyed countless cinematic predecessors which captivated my pop culture-addled appetites, 'Paul' is a film that seems to too often pander to genre fandom without finding deeper meaning beneath it, or maybe more accurately, celebrates the people who share our affection for nerdy stuff but neglects to provide a meaningful reason why we should feel it in the first place.