Do you want to see an engaging and consistently surprising movie about a space creature trapped on earth and struggling for his life? Skip "Super 8" -- see Greg Mottola's alien-on-the-run comedy, "Paul," out today on DVD and Blu-ray.
Mottola's feature comedies - like "The Daytrippers," "Superbad," and "Adventureland" -- vary widely in their styles of humor, from baggy-pants to super-literary. Yet they share the same high ratio of fresh behavior to surefire gags.
"Getting to direct a movie is the greatest job on earth, and I do take it seriously -- even though I do pretty ridiculous films," Mottola told me when "Adventureland" opened.
His gift for bringing a funny and affecting reality to ridiculous material has never been on better display than in "Paul." In part it's an "E.T." parody, but it's also a touching, anarchic sci-fi film that stands tall on its own spindly yet surprisingly strong legs.
What gives this film its raucous charm is the seamless collaboration between Mottola and the team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. They wrote the script and star as two British sci-fi/comic-book zealots. After attending the San Diego Comic Con, they take a road trip across the U.S. -- stopping at famous close-encounter sites -- and, sure enough, encounter an alien along the way.
Mottola told me that when Universal Studios met with the team, the production executives asked "if we could do more to earn the R - make it a little dirtier. Simon and I looked at each other and thought, 'We can do that. That's something we definitely know how to do.' "
It struck my ear as an odd thing to emphasize at the time. Now that I've seen the film it makes perfect sense. "Paul" -- the name of the E.T. as well as the movie -- offers a fresh and frisky portrait of an alien as arrested adolescent. After all, the government has isolated Paul ever since he crash-landed in the U.S. in 1947 (a kindly farm girl saved him). Scientific and national-security authorities have studied him for decades. They've gotten all they can out of him by interviews. Now they want to take him apart to analyze his super-powers and exploit them.
Pegg's Graeme Willy and Frost's Clive Gollings become Paul's perfect allies, not just because they're game and loyal, but also because they're thoroughly versed in sci-fi culture. In one of the movie's best running jokes it turns out that the government has given our top filmmakers a pipeline to Paul for decades -- and he's shaped the most influential movie visions of extra-terrestrial life. In this film's antic view, parts of Comic Con could be taken as a space-science museum.
Pegg, an upbeat guy who can suddenly go endearingly slack, and Frost, a roly-poly fellow with an unpredictable mix of lassitude and energy, boast the best kind of chemistry -- the kind that's hard to pin down. They appear to have telepathic access to each other's sneakiest thoughts. Pegg's Graeme is the artist and Frost's Clive is the writer when they collaborate on creating voluptuous critters like an alien with three breasts (another running joke that really gambols).
Kristen Wiig plays Ruth Buggs, Graeme's love interest, the repressed daughter of a fundamentalist trailer-park owner. When Paul and company free her from her moorings, she starts cursing exuberantly and incompetently -- and Wiig makes us feel the liberating effrontery of the character's unleashed id. Wiig is operating at full steam in this movie: she's wild and cutting and also authentic. She completes the scintillating group chemistry. Like Paul, she dares to express and to act on ideas and impulses that the geeky heroes reserve for fantasy.
A swarm of virtuoso farceurs like Bill Hader, Jason Bateman and Jane Lynch fill the movie with offhand comic coups, and Seth Rogen gives the voice of Paul just the right combination of earthiness and whimsy. Rogen helps Mottola turn "Paul" into the rare comedy or sci-fi movie that keeps its feet planted on the ground while it takes us out of this world.