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Jason Wallis ‘Paul’ shows potential, but never gets off the ground

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, March 25, 2011 8:43 am

Although I am not very familiar with the work of Elizabeth Taylor (my film interests tend to run more toward the post-1965 New Hollywood), I would be remiss not to acknowledge her death on Wednesday at the age of 79. And although I definitely need to brush up on my 1950s melodramas, I know enough to admire the woman. In addition to delivering strong performances in the few early roles I’ve seen her in (most notably the Tennessee Williams adaptations “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and the oft-neglected “Suddenly Last Summer”), she was also key to the success of 1966’s monumentally important “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, which served as a much-needed slap in the face to the era’s Hays-code social mores, and also won Taylor a second Oscar as best actress.

More admirable still were her humanitarian efforts, to which she had faithfully devoted herself for decades. She was also famously dismissive of ego-driven Hollywood BS, which is always a plus in my book. In any case, she will be missed. And don’t worry: I just added “A Place in the Sun” to my Netflix queue.

On a lighter note, I’m sure you’re all as excited as I am about the opening of “Sucker-Punch!,” director Zach Snyder’s ode to/critique of the entire “babes with guns” subgenre. Should be a gas, even if it is rated PG-13. I’ll have a review next week, along with a look at the new “Jane Eyre” that Heather is insisting we must see for our anniversary. (It has now been four all-too-brief, movie-filled years.)

Both have to at least be better than this week’s pick, “Paul,” which I was heartily looking forward to given the involvement of screenwriters/stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”) and director Gregg Mottola (“Superbad”, television’s “Undeclared“ and “Arrested Development”). It’s one of those frustrating films that suggests so much potential but just leaves you feeling ... meh. Doesn’t help that it feels about four hours long, making it the lengthiest weed-smoking alien movie you’re ever likely to see.

“Paul”

★★1/2 (out of four)

2011, Dir. Greg Mottola, U.S., R

Watching “Paul,” I was often reminded of “Rango,” the recent animated send-up of Spaghetti Westerns. Like that film, “Paul” utilizes an entire history of genre lore to fashion in its own unique, meta-level spin on the material. There are so many sci-fi movie allusions and riffs in this thing that it would be impossible for anyone but the most neck-bearded and virginal of sci-fi geeks to catch them all in one viewing. It’s an elaborate network of winking one-liners and visual gags, and its earnest efforts must be commended on some level. This is, after all, a significant step up from the likes of “Date Movie” and “Scary Movie 4.”

Still, it seems like most of the genre-based jokes in “Paul” do nothing to truly elevate the material, as they do so richly in “Rango.” That film effectively tweaked images and motifs from classics like “A Fistful of Dollars” and “Shane” (and even non-Westerns like “Chinatown” and “Apocalypse Now”) to broaden the scope of its genre deconstruction and lend new meaning to familiar images. With a movie like “Paul,” on the other hand, things aren’t quite so sophisticated. When a character takes his gun and shoots a radio intercom, muttering to himself, “Boring conversation anyway,” anyone who’s seen “Star Wars” is bound to chuckle. But how, exactly, does this qualify as genuinely clever? (Hint: It doesn’t.)

I just expected more from Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, whose “Hot Fuzz” was a much more pointed and funny genre satire. To be fair, they’re quite likable in their roles as a pair of British sci-fi nerds who encounter a fugitive space alien on their tour of America’s alleged UFO crash sites. As Paul, the chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, bird-eating alien with a heart of gold, Seth Rogen (in a voice performance) nicely complements the patented Pegg/Frost dynamic, and allows Paul’s personality to shine through all the “rude alien” clichés. And the presence of the lovely and hilarious Kristen Wiig (here playing a sheltered fundamentalist Christian hick who joins our heroes in their flight from government agents led by Jason Bateman) is, of course, always welcome.

But director Greg Mottola shouldn’t have counted on the likable cast to make up for the film’s serious issues with pacing and focus. It clocks in at less than two hours, but “Paul” feels excruciatingly long. It might have seemed more brisk had the movie not lost focus toward the final act and allowed itself to get bogged down in labored anti-religious sermonizing. (Pro tip: Best not to put on your smug face when your central argument is as bizarre and infantile as “aliens disprove the existence of a creator god.”) The comedic momentum screeches to a grinding halt, and the film kinda fizzles out by the end.

All this potential (from the stellar cast and often sharp writing to the tireless, blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em sci-fi nods) is now lost in time… like tears in rain. Time to see “Rango” again.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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