Thursday, August 25, 2011

Death By Focus Group: Paul (2011)

When Simon Pegg and Nick Frost first burst on the North American scene as actors and, in Pegg's case, writer with their first feature film, Shaun of the Dead, I was generally impressed. What I enjoyed about the film was how they managed to capture that hard-to-handle middle ground between horror and comedy. One minute, I found myself laughing out loud (the scene where they are deciding which LPs they are willing to give up as weapons to fling at the approaching walking dead still makes me giggle), while the next gave me legitimate chills. Their next film together, Hot Fuzz (both were directed directed by Edgar Wright of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World fame), combined a buddy cop movie, like 48 Hours, with the gentile English drama, such as A Room With A View. For a variety of reasons, I never saw it, but I hear from several people who did that it is Shaun's equal. The major criticism, even from those who liked it, was that in the last act they threw out the gentility and went for straight action, in other words becoming what they were ridiculing. Perhaps that was a sign.

For their next mash up, 2011's Paul (with Frost now on board as co-writer), just released on DVD, they clapped together the alien-amongst-us film with the gross-out buddy comedy. I was looking forward to it, because the premise seemed to be ripe for sending up. And yet, except for Kristen Wiig's winning performance as the daughter of a religious nutcase, Paul is an almost complete failure. The finished film, the first one wholly funded by a US studio (the others had been British imports), not only feels like it was focused-grouped to death, it feels like the script had the same treatment. Every laugh is calculated, every 'beat' in the script seems completely programmed. The spontaneity that seemed to permeate Shaun is long gone. The basic premise of Paul is that Graeme Wily (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) are two life-long SF-loving geek friends who come from England to attend the huge Comic Con in San Diego, and then head out on a road trip across America visiting all the sites made famous in UFO lore or movies (Devil's Mountain, Area 51, etc.). Along the way, they encounter an alien. 

Nick Frost, Simon Pegg and Kate Ashfield in Shaun of the Dead
Earlier in their journey, they stop off in a UFO-themed cafe and are promptly ridiculed and bullied by two yokels. They accuse Wily and Gollings of being gay. This accusation is supposed to be funny, but it ends up being rather creepy (especially when the accusation is levelled again and again by other characters), since the two yokels seem, well, awfully chummy themselves. Wily and Gollings flee in terror in the motor home they've rented, but not before badly damaging the yokels' big black truck. They think they are being followed by the yokels, but when the vehicle passes them, it ends up being a black car. It promptly skids out of control and crashes. They stop to offer assistance and that is where they finally meet the uninjured driver of the car, Paul (voiced, not badly, by Seth Rogen). Paul is a big-headed, large-eyed, grey-skinned alien out of every alien abduction story. Turns out Paul has escaped from Area 51. He speaks perfect American (yes, American, not English), likes to drink, smoke pot, make dick and shit jokes, and swear – a lot. From there, the film descends into an extended chase with the 'men in black' (primarily, Jason Bateman) in hot pursuit.

Frost & Pegg in Paul
Nothing really works. Even the nudging, winking references to other SF films and TV show that make the geeks in the audience feel superior are ham-fisted and stale. It was, for years, one of the reasons that it took until Inglourious Basterds for me to like a Quentin Tarantino movie. Prior to Basterds, all his films seemed to be nothing more than pastiches of old movies, but without doing anything with the 'reference' other than being a 'reference.' Same thing here. Oh look, Star Wars characters; wait, isn't that a bit from Close Encounters of the Third Kind; neat-o, that's the big government warehouse from the end of Raiders of the Lost Arc; hey, that's a line of dialogue from Aliens. Yeah, I got it. Yawn. Next. And the thing just goes on and on and on. Where Shaun in Shaun was at least sweetly depressive, here these two gits are just irritable and tiresome. I'd probably want to bully them too.

Kristen Wiig in Paul
In fact, I laughed out loud once. The scene where Paul resurrects a bird, and what he then does to that alive bird, did make me laugh. That's an awfully long slog for one laugh. Wiig's turn as the daughter of a religious nut who, until she mind-melds with Paul, believes that everything in the Bible is true, is, as I said above, enjoyable, but even she is just not given enough interesting things to do. When her eyes are finally opened to the reality, she realizes that she no longer has to be the good girl. She can swear, drink and fart like the rest of us. What was disappointing was that this was a huge missed opportunity. In something as simple as the way she swore, it was just the most basic foul language possible. This is the where it would make so much sense for someone new to swearing to come up with some off-centre stuff, but no, instead she just uses the typical language, such as “motherfucker” and “hairy balls.” Stuff like that. It would have actually been funny if she used some of the swearing the copywriters came up with for the recent series of ads by the computer virus protection company, Norton. In one, someone uses a cheaper computer security system instead of Norton's. Of course, it fails, and someone whose system is compromised refers to him as a “dillheaded winkeltoss.” Now that's a creative swear. It is nonsensical and almost surreal, but you sure remember it. Paul had ample opportunity to do things like this, but in their unwillingness to rock the boat, Pegg and Frost have listened to the focus groups, gutted the originality from the script and left us with yet another potty-mouthed, toilet-humoured travesty. How banal.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information. On the evening of Tuesday, October 18, 2011, David will be holding an event for his novel, The Empire of Death, at the Bayview Village LCBO's Lifestyle Kitchen (Bayview and Sheppard Avenue in Toronto -- 2901 Bayview Avenue, Toronto). For information and tickets (cost $35, which includes a copy of the book, cocktails and hors d'oeuvres), call the store at 416-222-7658. Seating is limited to 25, so please register early.

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