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LONDON — There are so many references to science-fiction films and comic book characters in Universal’s affectionate, funny and action-packed sci-fi spoof Paul that there should be a prize for anyone who gets them all.
Simon Pegg, who teamed with Edgar Wright to write the wonderful zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead and the much admired shoot ’em up horror lark Hot Fuzz, here partners with co-star Nick Frost to script a comedy creature feature that hits home with wit, invention and flare.
With great gags, lots of clever little moments and a winning, almost-human story at the center to leaven the big action sequences, the film should please devoted fans of the genre with its savvy attention to detail. But also it should appeal to those who generally can take or the leave the genre, which it treats with cheerful disrespect. Box-office riches lie in wait, as it is exactly the kind of film that fans will want to see more than once.
The picture gets down to business briskly with Pegg as Graeme and Frost as Clive, best mates from England on a dream trip to the United States that begins at San Diego’s Comic-Con ahead of a tour of the most famous UFO sites.
Genial and naive, they eat up Comic-Con, where Jeffrey Tambor delivers a devastating portrayal of an aging comic creator, before they set off in a RV headed for the desert. Somewhere along the Extraterrestrial Highway, they run into Paul.
Seth Rogen voices the title character, a laid-back, weed-smoking E.T. on the run from a U.S. government agency that has kept him prisoner for 60 years. After some persuasion, Graeme and Clive agree to help Paul get to where he can be rescued and taken back to his home planet.
Men in black, rednecks and fundamental Christians are the main heavies that get in the way of their plans. The writers populate the lavishly photographed American West with several weird and wonderful characters. Sigourney Weaver is the mostly unseen voice of the head of the agency that wants to see what’s in Paul’s brain with Jason Bateman as her ruthless man on the case.
Kristen Wiig spouts scripture as an impressionable clerk at an RV camp who finds salvation thanks to Paul’s evolutionary wisdom and Graeme’s love, while John Carroll Lynch carries a Bible and a shotgun as her angry father. There’s a pair of dangerously ham-fisted agents and a couple of belligerent truck-driving cowboys also on their tail.
Director Gregg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) encourages Lawrence Sher’s cinematography and David Arnold’s score to be as witty and intelligent as the script with pictures and music that evoke and tease the classics of science fiction with the same invention. Meanwhile, the alien is all head, big shiny eyes and gangly limbs, a first-class CGI creation that fits seamlessly into the film.
With secure spots in the Star Trek and Mission: Impossible franchises, and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn coming up, Pegg is now an established star with a patented mix of good-guy innocence and street smarts. Frost’s slacker buddy routine can become tiresome but he shows good comic timing, and handles deftly several gags about whether Clive and Graeme are gay.
Rogen’s nonchalant smart-ass delivery is perfect for a cool outer-space dude and Wiig has the required sweetness and prettiness to deal with a young woman whose liberation leads her to become an ill-advised potty-mouth. There’s lots of bad language in the film, all of it for comic effect, but constant nonetheless. Christianity gets in the neck, which could hurt Bible-belt box office, and some of the action becomes a bit serious. It’s all in good spirit though and many of the jokes are priceless.
Opens: Feb. 14 in U.K.; March 18 in U.S. (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: Big Talk Pictures, Working Title
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jason Bateman, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Greg Mottola
Screenwriters: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
Producers: Nira Park, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Executive producers: Liza Chasin, Debra Hayward, Natascha Wharton, Robert Graf
Director of photography: Lawrence Sher
Production designer: Jefferson Sage
Music: David Arnold
Costume designer: Nancy Steiner
Editor: Chris Dickens
Rated R; 104 minutes
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