In the olden days, comedy troupes like the Marx Brothers didn’t have the luxury of sticking with their favorite directors; they got whoever the studio threw at them. But the writing-and-acting team of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg have had a kickass collaboration with Edgar Wright that’s resulted in two exhilarating, gut-bursting features: the parody-plus Shaun of the Dead and the hyperactive Hot Fuzz. (The drug that psyches up Jason Statham in Crank is like Crystal Light by comparison.) Apart, all three have done fine work as free agents. In fact, they’ve transcended their material: Pegg, with his brains, in Star Trek, and Frost, with his belly, in Pirate Radio. Working with a good director, Greg Mottola, and an even better cast that includes Seth Rogen, the duo is reconstituted in the brand-new Paul. Rogen, at 25, played a cop who yearned to be a kid in Superbad—and Rogen really was a kid when he co-wrote the first draft of its script. That film’s mixture of nostalgia and juvenilia is not a unique blend, but the miniscule distance between the writers and the characters lent it a fresh perspective; and Mottola, who directed, served up their bluntness with subtlety, their dirty-mindedness with dreaminess—and gave it a creamy, ambient look that evoked American Graffiti. When Wright directed Michael Cera (one of the stars of Superbad) in Scott Pilgrim, he pumped a shot of adrenaline into the actor’s runty lassitude; but in Paul the process is not reversed. It’s a small-potatoes failure that’s a huge disappointment because it could’ve been so much better.
Rogen has gone from surfing the zeitgeist, and giving an exceptional performance in an artistic and financial failure, to being a second-tier superhero and now opening his own X-File as an extraterrestrial baller called Paul. He’s a little green man on the lam, abetted by a pair of schlubbery English tourists (Pegg and Frost) who’ve come to the States for an excursion through flying-saucer country. This is a killer setup for a pop culture-palooza. Now that U.F.O. mythology is as codified in the public imagination as the clichés of the Old West are, Paul could’ve been shaped into a guided tour through the demimonde—one that pace-conscious Mottola would be qualified to conduct—or turned into something punchy, along the lines of Zombieland or the Wright stuff. But not only does the movie skirt the wingnutty quirks that this landscape is rolling in, it is condescending to rural Americans, and particularly the religious. (Are the filmmakers really trying to rectify this with their dodgy reference to stem cells? The laid-back humanism of Cedar Rapids puts these shenanigans to shame.) When the plot kicks in, the film conks out; it’s a duddy stoner comedy that requires toxically dank weed to wheedle any hearty chuckles out of it. The mellowness—sometimes sheepishly likable—heats up in a few spots. A clipped Jason Bateman is funny at first; Sigourney Weaver channels Carmen Sandiego as a Nuyorican slam poet; Jane Lynch is graciously de-Glee’d and fluffed up with a trucker-café waitress’s ’do; but Bill Hader’s part makes no sense; and Kristen Wiig is aware of how much better she deserves. She plays a cuss-word newbie—a comedic old standard that makes fart jokes look like rocket science. As I laughed, I could feel my expectations drop, bit by bit. Set your phasers to skunked.