Let’s talk about a little show called Spaced. This was a 14-episode British TV series that was made pretty much entirely out of geek-friendly pop culture references and inside jokes. Despite the show’s relatively small cult following, it seems like such nods and winks toward the nerd community have become increasingly common since the show stopped airing in 2001. They can be found in many shapes and sizes, from entire underground franchises (such as Penny Arcade or Press Start Adventures), to quick little gems hidden in mainstream entertainment (I’m looking at you, Castle).
I can’t begin to describe just how powerful these in-jokes are, especially to those in the geek community. On one level, it can be like a secret handshake, signaling that one of us has made it big, living the dream and spreading the word. On another level, it’s a sign that nerdy preoccupations are slowly being brought into the acceptance of the outside world. Either way, the growing number of nerd-friendly nods in entertainment is a further sign that the culture war is over and the geeks have won. We can only get more mainstream from here. This leads me to conclude that sooner or later, the novelty is going to wear off and the warm fuzzy feeling we get at the slightest Ghostbusters quotation won’t always be around.
I don’t know when that day will come, but can we please enjoy it while it lasts?
Paul is a movie that was clearly made by nerds and for nerds. The script was written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who have built their careers around such loving pop-culture homages as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (also the aforementioned Spaced). These are guys who know how to take bits of common geek knowledge and make them funny while mix-and-matching them into something new entirely, and that’s exactly what they do in this sci-fi send-up. The most prominent targets are such ’80s “friendly alien” films as E.T., Close Encounters, Starman and even Mac and Me, but they don’t stop there. Such classic geek standbys as Back to the Future, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Star Trek and many more are all lovingly made fun of and paid lip-service to.
Pegg and Frost themselves play Graeme and Clive, a couple of lifelong nerds who go to the San Diego Comic-Con before starting on a road trip through America’s great UFO landmarks (Area 51, Roswell, etc.). Along the way, they cross paths with an alien and start on a journey to get him safely back home. Though Pegg and Frost might have tried to fake American accents or something, they actually embrace their British origins in this film, playing two characters from the UK on vacation in Red State America. Pegg and Frost (as per usual) also play characters in an unusually close bromance, leading more than a few characters to question their sexuality in a particularly gay-unfriendly part of the U.S. Aside from some obvious fish-out-of-water comedy, both character points also add some subtle layers of subtext onto the concept of aliens in a strange land.
Usually, Pegg and Frost are known to work under the direction of longtime colleague Edgar Wright. However, since Wright was busy filming Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Greg Mottola was tapped instead. Not only did Mottola bring his proven comedic chops to this film, but he also gathered a top-notch cast of talent to the proceedings. Even this film’s tertiary cast is filled with such names as Blythe Danner, David Koechner, Jeffrey Tambor and Jane Lynch. Steven Spielberg hisownself pokes his head in for a showstopping cameo. But before I go any further on the subject, I have to talk about Seth Rogen as the eponymous alien’s voice.
In a very novel and welcome twist, Paul isn’t some naive alien who gets into crazy mishaps while trying to understand our ways and customs. The spaceman first crash-landed on Earth in the ’60s and he’s been here ever since. He knows our language, he knows our technology and he knows our culture. In fact, through ways that I won’t detail here, Paul has actually helped shape culture during his time here. Paul’s eccentricities, powers and otherworldly appearance are contrasted with his bluntly mundane and matter-of-fact attitude, which works for some pretty solid humor at times. I’ve heard a lot of critics say that Paul’s voice is very distracting, due to the knowledge that it’s Seth Rogen on the mic, but I disagree. Rogen’s voice has a very laid-back “Joe Schlub” sound to it, which further establishes the comical divide between Paul’s other-worldly origins and his earthly demeanor. The voice is perfectly unremarkable in an American setting, and the character wouldn’t have worked any other way.
Kristen Wiig appears as Graeme’s love interest, Ruth Buggs. Though Wiig is adorable and can be very funny, her character here is kinda one-note. See, Ruth is a Creationist who — after meeting Paul — must accept that aliens exist and that everything she’s been raised to believe is essentially wrong. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t take this cosmic awakening quite far enough. Mostly, Ruth expresses her newfound intellectual and moral freedom through learning how to cuss by way of trial and error. And this comprises roughly 90 percent of the character’s jokes. Wiig does the best she can to make self-unaware cursing funny, but the gimmick gets old really fast. Also, as much as I applaud the movie’s effort to address this hypothetical dilemma, spoofing religion in a sci-fi nerd lovefest seems rather out of place and the movie can get kinda mean about it at times. Then again, any opportunity to take the piss out of closed-minded and overzealous Fundies is A-OK by me.
Furthermore, I suppose that this character arc might make Ruth — like Graeme and Clive — a newcomer in unknown territory learning how to live in this strange world she’s just found. It’s rather peculiar how of all our lead characters, the one who’s most comfortable with ordinary life in America should be the alien from outer space.
As for our antagonists, Jason Bateman plays a surprisingly tough hardass from some unknown government agency, doing so with a skillfully subtle humorous edge. Bill Hader also appears, effectively playing a novice FBI agent who slowly goes from comically inept to batshit insane. But the best of them has to be Bateman’s shadowy boss, played by none other than Sigourney Weaver. We never actually see her face until the third act, but her voice-over scenes are milked for all the humor they’re worth. Weaver herself may not get a whole lot of screentime, but she makes every second of it count. Very well done.
Nevertheless, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out just how inept our government operatives proved to be at times. You’d think that the geniuses keeping Area 51 under wraps would at least know better than to communicate in some way that couldn’t be overheard by anyone with a ham radio.
Paul has its flaws, but I was willing to overlook them for the sake of all the great humor on display. Then again, the best of the film’s jokes were clearly aimed at my nerdy ilk, so I don’t know how this film would play to anyone with a productive life. If you’re a geek of any stripe, this film was made for you and you’d do well to see it. If you’re a fan of Spaced, you should already have seen it by now. Anyone else can take it or leave it.