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?
Set waaaaaay back in 1987 Adventureland revolves around the still virginal James Brennan a smart college grad whose dashed European vacation plans and career desperation lead him to take a summer job running games and handing out crummy stuffed animals at a Z-grade amusement park. It’s there that he falls hard for his colleague Em a pretty but emotionally confused girl who is having a secret affair with older-married-guy Mike Connell an aspiring musician and the park’s resident handyman. Over the course of the summer the employees of this pathetic Disneyland party hard smoke weed and most importantly learn about love and relationships while being forced to hear “Rock Me Amadeus” played continuously on the park’s piped-in music system.
WHO’S IN IT?
The whole cast is superb led by Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale The Education of Charlie Banks) who is simply terrific in a breakthrough performance that proves Michael Cera is not the ONLY one who can play nerdy-but-thoughtful young guys trying to navigate their life’s path down the winding road of uncertainty. Eisenberg as James deftly manages writer/director Greg Mottola’s (Superbad) droll dialogue with effortless timing and delivery. Kristen Stewart as Em shot this role before Twilight and is sensational — her best screen work yet. As his slacker best friend Joel Martin Starr underplays it nicely creating a three-dimensional character in just a few scenes. Hot newcomer Margarita Levieva is hysterical as Lisa P the park’s resident tease and gossip while SNL stalwarts Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig do their usual flawless comedic thing as the Adventureland owners. Ryan Reynolds is the perfect jerk as the joint’s self-appointed married skirt-chaser.
Expectations might be: It's just another gross-out teen comedy. But the real surprise is the sweet nature of the script and strongly-etched characters. Working in the world’s worst job is a good starting place for Mottola’s musings on love and relationships — and it's just as pertinent now as in the time the film is set. For those who still have a jonesin' for all things '80s the nifty soundtrack full of choice items from the era is retro-cool (except for that “Rock Me Amadeus” tune).
It’s a key plot point but it’s hard to see why Stewart’s character would get so attached to such a slimy married guy like the one Reynolds plays.
A restaurant scene where James pours his heart out to Em and reveals his virginity for the first time is very funny and painfully honest.
BEST DOWNER LINE:
In giving Em a custom-made gift the morose James says: “I made you a tape. These are my favorite bummer songs — pit of despair stuff.”