If a major motion picture studio gave you $50 million to make the movie of your choice what would it be like? If you’re producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner and writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost it’d be a loving lampoon of geek culture and an homage to the films of the Spielberg/Lucas revolution but nostalgia is both an advantage and disadvantage in director Greg Mottola’s Paul.
Pegg and Frost star as a pair of nerds from across the pond who fulfill lifelong dreams when they fly to San Diego for the annual Mecca of nerdom Comic-Con. The doofy duo extend their trip to tour America’s extraterrestrial hot spots including Area 51 where they pick up an unexpected alien hitchhiker on the run from the proverbial men in black. Across the country they go getting into trouble picking up more passengers and building bromantic bonds as the little green man Paul inches closer to his escape from planet Earth and the shadowy government official who has been exploiting his knowledge of the universe since he crash landed in Wyoming over 60 years ago.
Fan-favorite filmmakers since 2004’s Shaun of the Dead Pegg and Frost have been making geek chic for years now and continue to create identifiable roles for themselves while finding humorous ways to write their like-minded friends into their movies. Their collection of wacky characters is charming if incredibly derivative but for better or worse they are the heart and soul of the film. Jason Bateman Kristen Wiig Bill Hader and Jo Lo Truglio turn in fun performances but I expected a bit more from the Jane Lynch David Koechner and Sigourney Weaver cameos. Still Seth Rogen’s vocal performance as Paul adds significant layers to an already adorable alien and enlivens the adequately rendered CG character.
The comedy is surprisingly sweet and doesn’t bite like Mottola’s Superbad though there are enough religious jabs and signs of anti-establishment fervor to call it mildly subversive. Lack of laughs isn’t the issue here; lack of originality is. Mottola is too dependent on pop-culture references and inside jokes pertaining to E.T. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind so much so that the film ultimately becomes a parody of itself as its storyline mirrors that of Steven Spielberg’s massive 1982 blockbuster (in this world the movie mogul actually consults the incarcerated alien for inspiration for his beloved family film). While these nods are all amusing they’re not enough to carry the film and Mottola/Frost/Pegg offer little else. At its worst Paul will give you a reason to revisit those classic sci-fi staples and remember the good old days. At best it provides a few mindless chuckles and gives you good reason to give the geek next to you a great big hug.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
George Simmons is a comedian-turned-Hollywood superstar whose comfortable Malibu existence is threatened when he is diagnosed with a rare blood disorder. Placed on a regimen of experimental meds that offer a mere 8% chance of success he’s forced to confront the very real prospect of his own mortality which not surprisingly triggers a drastic realignment of his priorities. Looking for a companion to assist him in his final days he hires Ira Wright an earnest young comedian in desperate need of a break to work as his assistant. Ira naturally jumps at the chance to be mentored by one of his idols but quickly finds himself in over his head as he accompanies George on his perilous chaotic journey of self-discovery and redemption.
WHO’S IN IT?
A newly trim Seth Rogen (Pineapple Express Observe & Report) injects an endearing blend of sensitivity and self-doubt into his normal “lovable schlub” routine as Ira the struggling performer tasked with such a strange assignment. In the role of George Adam Sandler deserves kudos for taking on a character clearly based on himself. It’s not hard to see the similarities between Sandler’s resume of high-concept critically-maligned blockbusters and George’s fictional portfolio of hits like Merman a male-centric version of Splash Re-Do the story of a grown man turned into a baby by a wizard and My Best Friend is a Robot a buddy comedy co-starring Owen Wilson. (For a more complete list check out george-simmons.com.) But in contrast to Sandler’s genial everyman persona George is an acerbic self-absorbed privileged vision of the Hollywood success run amok.
Supporting players include Leslie Mann (Drillbit Taylor Knocked Up) who plays George’s ex-girlfriend and soulmate Laura a one-time actress now married with two children in Marin County. Eric Bana (Munich The Time Traveler’s Wife) makes an inspired turn as Laura’s husband Clarke a boisterous Aussie businessman whose temperament amusingly alternates between violent aggression and teary-eyed affection. Relative newcomer Aubrey Plaza (TV’s Parks and Recreation) is a delight as Ira’s shy witty love interest Daisy while veteran Apatow players Jonah Hill (Superbad Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and Jason Schwartzman (The Darjeeling Limited Walk Hard) provide much of the film’s laughs as his oddball roommates. Rounding out the supporting cast are RZA Aziz Ansari and Apatow and Mann’s real-life daughters Maude and Iris Apatow.
Cameos abound with appearances by such varied names as musician Jon Brion comedians Ray Romano and Andy Dick and rapper Eminem.
After tugging the heartstrings and tickling the funnybone with equal skill in his previous directorial efforts The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up Judd Apatow heads into darker more ambitious territory with Funny People while still trying to deliver the same raucous comedy that we’ve come to expect from him. The result is a movie that is at times heartbreakingly poignant and laugh-out-loud funny.
At almost two and a half hours in length Funny People is neither poignant nor funny enough to justify such a bloated running time. Apatow let his ambition get the best of him this time attempting to deliver — to paraphrase his own words — his funniest and most serious film to date. Methinks a shorter cut of the film might have yielded either a great comedy or a great drama depending on which path its director chose. Instead we wind up with a merely good dramedy that meanders for a while before falling off a cliff in the third act.
While offering some sobering advice to Sandler’s character at a high-class restaurant rapper Eminem catches Ray Romano staring at him and unleashes a barrage of expletives at the mortified former sitcom star much to the shock of the surrounding customers. It’s ironic that one of the film’s funniest scenes comes courtesy of one of the few non-comedians in the cast.
The film features solid performances all around but I was most impressed by Bana who displays some terrific range and comedic timing as Laura’s charismatic unstable Aussie husband. Perhaps the man who scowled and brooded his way through Munich and The Hulk might want to consider sprinkling more comedy into the mix.