The Review: Great comedy double acts of the cinema used to be common, from Laurel and Hardy to Abbott and Costello, from Hope and Crosby to Prior and Wilder, but nowadays we have to put up with the likes of the Wayans brothers or Harold and Kumar. Also, Laurel and Hardy aside, there’s never really been a British pairing to compare; at least until the 21st century, when the unlikely geek stylings of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have been brought together on worldwide cult hits including Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz. With a Spielberg movie (admittedly a motion capture one) also in the can, the pair have taken off the Edgar Wright-shaped stabilisers and have written and are starring in their latest adventure, this time with Greg “Superbad” Mottola behind the camera. The pair gained inspiration from their time spent hawking their various other wares at events like Comic-Con, so this sees them start at that very event and get drawn into a road trip with a small grey friend they inadvertently pick up along the way.
It’s testament to how far special effects have come that Paul is a fully realised and integrated character in the story. Even ten years ago, he’d have either been some form of puppet or Muppet with possibly the occasional CG shot and a midget running around in the costume, filmed from a distance, but he gets plenty of screen time and he’s far and away the best thing in the film, thankfully, not only for the remarkably conveyed emotions in his well animated face but also for Seth Rogen’s stellar voice work. It’s also fair to say that Paul gets the vast majority of the best lines, almost as if he’s wandered in from a much funnier movie. His story, as such, is fairly linear but it does take an occasional detour, and along the way manages to pick up additional stragglers, including Kirsten Wiig’s one-eyed Christian and a succession of shady government characters including Jason Bateman and Bill Hader trying to capture Paul before he can reach his goal.
It’s a stellar supporting cast, many of whom get reduced to barely cameos, and some of them do serve to take you out of the story, if only briefly. However, they pretty much all manage to make an impact of some sort, which leaves only two characters who struggle to truly engage, which strangely are Graham and Clive, a.k.a. Pegg and Frost. They have somehow not recaptured the chemistry of their Wright collaborations and end up both playing the straight man in the comedy double act to Paul’s broader laughs. Consequently the movie is as flat as a pancake until Paul arrives, and also nearly gets derailed with the ham-fisted subplot around Kirsten Wiig’s beliefs. While the kinetic energy that Edgar Wright brings might have been too much for this more casual road movie, there’s still a lack of drama or tension at many points in Greg Mottola’s more restrained direction and the eventual outcomes are all signposted a mile off.
That’s not to say there’s not a lot to enjoy, because there is. As well as the titular alien lighting up the screen, Wigg, Bateman and Hader all fill out their roles well and Sigourney Weaver relishes her role as the boss trying to stop Paul’s progress. The whole movie is a love affair to Spielberg, so there’s plenty of nods, nudges and winks and even an appropriate cameo, and if you’re as geeky as the lead characters you’ll have a whale of a time spotting all of the references. Somehow the special magic of the Pegg-Wright collaborations gets missed here, as the references feel more obvious, possibly because of the setting, and drama and pathos are also somewhat lessened. Crucially, it’s just not as consistently funny as Shaun or Fuzz, and so ends up being a movie you’ll probably like rather than love, but it doesn’t stop you wondering what this comedy double have in store for us next.
Why see it at the cinema: The wide open spaces of the US of A get a good airing on the cinema screen, and the giant viewing area will allow you to take in the amazing detail of Paul’s animation at its best. There’s just about enough laughs to warrant the communal viewing experience as well.
The Score: 7/10