So beloved are Simon Pegg and Nick Frost among a certain section of thirty-somethings in this country that any new comedy of theirs quickly becomes an eagerly anticipated event. The love engendered by their earlier efforts - 2007’s Hot Fuzz and the now-revered cult classic “rom-zom-com” from 2004, Shaun of the Dead - has continued to grow down the years; the knowing tributes and parodies of genre staples have inspired a devout following amongst self-confessed geeks around the world. Any fancy dress Halloween party these days is bound to have at least one guy arrive dressed up in a white short-sleeved shirt, armed with a cricket bat and a Dire Straits LP (well, maybe not the LP).
So expectations are naturally high now they’ve turned their attention to the science-fiction genre with Paul – a natural progression from Shaun’s horror rib-tickling. But we’ve omitted one very important name here: that of Edgar Wright, the director and co-writer of both previous films and also director of the Spaced television series that spawned them. His idiosyncratic stylings were a vital ingredient in their success, and his absence here is certainly noticeable. This time around Pegg and Frost are co-writers, and directing is American Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland), a coupling which results in a more trans-Atlantic style of humour.
On the surface it’s a scenario ripe for the Spaced treatment: Graeme and Clive, a pair of British sci-fi nerds (thirty-somethings, natch), set out on a road trip across the States, beginning at the San Diego Comic-Con and from there hitting the UFO trail, taking in places like the fabled Area 51 and Roswell. But on their journey they have a close encounter with a very real alien called Paul (voiced by the gravelly Seth Rogen), who's on the run from the government, his usefulness apparently at an end. Jason Bateman’s Man In Black is tasked with finding and returning the little green man for dissection, but Paul has arranged a ride off the planet and needs Graeme and Clive to get him to the pick-up point.
For those expecting a thematic follow-up to Shaun, Paul is sure to disappoint. For a start, the humour is much more conventional, missing the snappiness that Wright brings with his box of tricks. In his place, Mottola does a perfectly respectable job in delivering the action-comedy set pieces, even if it is fairly anonymous. If anything, it leans too heavily towards action during the prolonged climax. Beyond that, the feeling persists that Pegg and Frost’s script has been neutered to some extent. For all the talk of upsetting America’s bible-belt with Kristen Wiig’s creationist character, whose beliefs are utterly exploded when brought face to face with an intelligent being from another world, the humour still feels very safe. Look, there’s the dim-witted cops giving chase, and here’s the redneck yokel hunters who can’t wait to tear in to these two pathetic specimens of manhood, and of course we have the mandatory mysterious government agency hell-bent on stopping Paul from getting away. It's all good fun, as are the expected nods to classic SF films, but – aside from one or two memorable scenes where we discover what Paul’s been up to since crash landing here - it doesn’t really bring out any big laughs.
What keeps it from disappointing is the reliable chemistry between the two stars. Even when the script begins to sag, Pegg and Frost are a genuinely strong double act and Paul does nothing to change that. Clive and Graeme, two innocents abroad, are familiar variations on their past roles, and clearly Pegg and Frost decided that if it ain’t broke, don’t bother fixing it. The supporting cast are all rock solid; kudos to Sigourney Weaver for gamely turning up in a brief role. The only real oddity is Pegg’s hairpiece, which is distracting enough to make one question whether it is an alien lifeform in its own right. Perhaps it was a sly tribute to Fiend Without A Face.