Michael O'Sullivan reviews 'Paul'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, March 18, 2011; 12:20 PM

Judging by appearance, the titular, CGI hero of "Paul" - a wrinkled, pencil-necked geek with big, almond-shaped eyes and the rumbling voice of Seth Rogen - could be a distant cousin of Rango, Johnny Depp's cowboy-chameleon character in the recent animated film of the same name. But unlike that PG-rated kids cartoon, "Paul's" R-rated protagonist is not a lizard, but a wise-cracking space alien who landed on Earth 50 years ago and is now on the lam from the Men in Black. The derriere-flashing, dope-smoking, potty-mouthed antics of this antisocial E.T. justify every bit of the rating that the MPAA has slapped on him.

Which is not to say that the movie is in any way grown-up.

Much of its broad, juvenile humor derives from a single incongruity. That comes from the sight, or rather the sound, of this little green man - who is actually, to be more precise, putty-colored - as he spouts a torrent of unprintable Anglo-Saxonisms, in between tokes of wacky weed, tobacco and swigs of beer. It seems that, in the time he has been detained as a guinea pig in a secret U.S. military facility, he has picked up a few bad habits.

The movie's premise is simple. Paul - whose name our alien protagonist borrowed from the dog his spaceship accidentally flattened when he crash-landed here a half-century ago - finally has managed to escape from the Area 51-like research lab where he has been imprisoned. While on his way to a rendezvous with his mothership, Paul runs into Graeme and Clive (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost of "Shaun of the Dead"), two British sci-fi geeks whose idea of an American holiday is an RV tour of the Southwest's most famous UFO sites.

Once Graeme and Clive get over their initial shock that Paul can talk (albeit with a somewhat limited vocabulary), they agree to drive their foul-mouthed new friend to his destination. Things get complicated, however, with the appearance of a shadowy government agent (Jason Bateman), whose dogged pursuit of Paul precipitates the violent mayhem, gunplay, car crashes and explosions that characterize the film's familiar-looking climax.

Amid all this testosterone, however, there's a refreshing shot of estrogen, courtesy of Kristen Wiig. Playing a fundamentalist-Christian RV park manager who somehow gets swept up with the three fugitives, Wiig provides a daffy counterpoint to the film's at-times-tedious boy's-club vibe, which manifests itself in such ways as a running joke about whether Graeme and Clive are gay. They're not, by the way. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as the film takes pains to reassure us. But its writers (Pegg and Frost) pound the joke into the ground long after the humor is gone.

Wiig's Ruth is more consistently funny. This comes as no surprise to those who know the actress's work on "Saturday Night Live." A goody-two-shoes who doesn't believe in evolution - until she undergoes a mind-melding exchange of consciousness with Paul that turns her understanding of faith and science on its head - Ruth goes from being a self-righteous Bible-thumper to a foul-mouthed libertine overnight.

Except that she never gets it exactly right. What's funniest about Ruth - as opposed to Paul, who's just as vulgar - is that she's new at the game. Paul has had 50 years to practice. Ruth doesn't really know how to put two swear words together properly, which sweetens the character's newfound dirty-mindedness.

There are other charms. Pegg and Frost sprinkle the film with in-jokey allusions to such other sci-fi culture as "Alien," "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," "Star Wars" and "The X-Files." It's more than occasionally cute, if less than consistently clever.

By the standards of mainstream movies, though, there's little that's particularly paranormal about "Paul." Rather than poking fun at the conventions of Hollywood sci-fi, it, for the most part, obeys them.

R. At area theaters. Contains pervasive crude language, sexual humor, violence, drug use and smoking. 104 minutes.

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