Movie Review: Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind

Film: Paul
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jason Bateman
Written by: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost
Directed by: Greg Mottola
Genre: Comedy, Science Fiction, Geek-a-palooza
Rating: 8 out of 10 / A-


Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Collings (Nick Frost) are a pair of British fanboys (of everything) on an RV road trip to sites of extraterrestrial fame in the southwest part of the United States. One night, they come across a car wreck, and instead of finding an injured driver, they find a small grey alien named Paul (voice of Seth Rogen). The laid back, sarcastic, easy-going Paul is trying to get home and needs help getting to a rendezvous point where his people are waiting for him. As the trio head to their destination, they manage to pick up a Christian fundamentalist (Kristen Wiig) whose faith is shaken by Paul’s mere existence, and they find themselves racing against government agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) who is to retrieve Paul at any and all costs for his nefarious boss, the “Big Guy.”

A sci-fi geek love letter from frame one to the end credits, written by two self-professed fanboys, Paul is nothing short of a 104-minute geekgasm. The film begins at Comic-Con, and ends up in a number of locations that will look immediately familiar to any fan of sci-fi TV and films. The references and allusions are fast and furious, and neither Pegg nor Frost ever wear a t-shirt that isn’t emblazoned with a comic book or sci-fi logo. And if that isn’t enough for you, the film is hysterically funny to boot.

Pegg and Frost, along with director Greg Mottola of Superbad, have made a film that’s both respectful of fanboy culture, while also playfully nudging it in the ribs. Graeme and Clive are completely in their element inside a convention or chatting with each other, but once thrust into the outside world, they’re socially awkward to a painful degree. They’re never portrayed as dumb or foolish, simply wrapped up in their obsessions. However, it’s their fanboy nature that allows them to bond with Paul and discover a greater purpose than simply taking pictures with the “black mailbox” near Area 51. Both Pegg and Frost do an excellent job playing the characters, both of them highly sympathetic and likable, if a tad embarrassing.

The film is truly an ensemble piece, however, and Pegg and Frost never have to do the heavy lifting for the rest of the cast. Kristen Wiig is, as always, absolutely hilarious. Once the creationist Christian Ruth lets go of her long-held beliefs, she goes about it with a giddy gusto that finds her adding new and inventive curse words to every sentence and making clumsy advances at Graeme. Jason Bateman is a perfect “man in black,” his steely determination often undermined by his assistants, two inept FBI agents (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) who also happen to be fanboys. Cameos abound, including Jeffrey Tambour as an insufferably egotistical sci-fi author and Jane Lynch as a waitress at an alien-themed restaurant whose hairdo just screams “Darlin’!”

The best part of the film, however, is Paul himself. While he may look like one of the typical Greys—big head, large eyes, skinny body—he acts more like the Dude. Without a doubt, he’s the most relaxed character in the film, as well as being the most level-headed and (perhaps not ironically) the one who seems to be the best fit with human society. Unlike the rest of the characters, he’s able to see the big picture and recognize the world from beyond his immediate circle. Graeme and Clive have a hard time interacting with the world outside of a sci-fi fandom interface, Ruth is trapped by her dogma, and Zoil and his associates are too dedicated to their job to see what’s happening around them. It takes the most non-human member of the cast to show them what it means to live in the real world. Seth Rogen does wonderful voice-over work, and Paul is an instantly likable protagonist, even when he uses his intelligence and experience as a weapon against his traveling companions. Imagine Brian from Family Guy with fewer neuroses and with his martinis replaced with military-grade marijuana. Besides, it’s hard not to like a guy who gave the world the ideas for E. T. and Fox Mulder.

The film maintains a quick, rapid pace, although some developments seem a bit rushed or under-explained. The script rarely lingers too long on any one moment, and even moments meant to be dramatic and emotional are cut with a well-time profanity or gag. It’s not until the climax of the film when things start to ever-so-slightly fall apart, with the tone taking a sudden turn for the black.  Everything is still funny, but it’s suddenly a lot darker than it was five minutes ago. In addition, the events that film tries to turn into big, surprise reveals are obvious from the get-go. The identity of the “Big Guy,” for instance, is only a surprise to someone who’s never seen a sci-fi film or TV show in the last 30 years, and most of the big plot twists can be found in almost any road movie.  A running joke where people think Graeme and Clive are gay gets old fairly fast, although it should be pointed out that almost all the characters who makes the joke are quite clearly not good people.

That, however, is part of the film’s charm. While there is enough of the film’s humor that appeals to a mass audience (kicks to the groin are the universal language), much of the enjoyment of the film comes from recognizing the barrage of sci-fi references in the script and scenery. This is a comedy made by fanboys for fanboys, and I can tell you that I was probably the loudest person laughing in my theatre. More than once, I almost fell out of my chair. The best part, though, is that it never makes fandom seem like an undesirable thing. It’s geek pride all the way. It’s funny, it’s exciting, and it has jokes about spaceman junk. Who could ask for anything more?

%d bloggers like this: