Think of Starman. Now, instead of having The Dude from The Big Lebowski having sex with Karen Allen, think of Zack from Zack & Miri Make a Porno in the body of one of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind xenomorphs hitching a ride with a couple of English nerds and assorted others. Insert an asteroid belt's worth of SF in-jokes and you've mostly got the idea behind Paul. Mostly.
The latest gem from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost tells the tale of a pair of fanboys who've come from the UK on the ultimate geek's pilgrimage: to attend the San Diego Comicon, followed by a roadtrip to see various alleged alien landing sites and conspiracy locations around the American west. One night while driving their winnebago (which continually gave me flashbacks to Lonestar & Barf's ride in Spaceballs - and I'm not sure whether that was intended by Pegg & Frost or not) on a lonesome highway they witness a car crash. When they come to offer help, they're met by a stereotypical big-headed alien named Paul who asks for a ride. Turns out he's not just another extraterrestrial trying to get home, he's also a wisecracking, frequently rude, ganja-rocker who's got a pretty down-to-earth outlook on life. Along the way the boys pick up a trailer park worker and are relentlessly hunted by a trio of federal agents played by Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, and Joe Lo Trugilo (who are themselves hounded by their boss Sigourney Weaver), not to mention an angry dad and the occasional redneck.
And, as mentioned, there are enough science fiction references to satisfy a legion of nerds. Most are pretty obvious, enough so that non-geeks in the audience will get them and laugh, but none-the-less endearing to fanboys and fangirls. Then there are more scattered here and there that are more subtle. No spoilers, but pay attention to the name of one of the restaurants in the first half of the movie, and listen closely to the bluegrass band in the back half. And then there are the ones that will earn you your ultranerd badge if you can pick up on them. Again, no spoilers, but let's say I was the only one in my audience of 300 who laughed at Pegg's homage to Star Trek: Generations. There's no doubt that half the appeal of the movie will be rewatching it on DVD once or twice just to pick up on the allusions that are missed in the first viewing.
Is there anything truly profound about Paul? Does it examine the question of what an extraterrestrial's perceptions of life in general and Earth and American culture in particular would be? Does it probe (heh-heh, "probe") the depths of the human condition and our views on existence? Nope. But it's funny as hell. Paul isn't trying to be a deeply moving drama or existentialist art-house flick. It's a straight-forward roadtrip comedy and it works very well in this capacity. It's also a loveletter to SF (and here I'm borrowing very appropriate wording from the CBC's review) and is genuine and well-crafted in this respect too. And it benefits from a cast of likable characters. Do all of the jokes work? No. Some fall flat. But most are funny enough to elicit a chuckle and a lot are worth a full-on laugh.
For SF fans and non-fans alike, Paul is definitely worth paying full price to see at the theatre.