The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by Jim Holden.

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Simon Pegg and Nick Frost now deserve to be seen as more or less major Hollywood players - especially Pegg, though both will appear in the upcoming Spielberg/Peter Jackson version of Tintin. As such, the two are going through a period where they can pick and choose their projects, which helps explain both the timing of Paul, and the line-up of famous actors/directors eager to work with them on the project.

Yet Paul, unlike the pair’s most beloved projects, does not involve Edgar Wright, who at the time was himself off in Hollywood making the wonderfully inventive comic book movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010). Saturated in cult appeal, Scott Pilgrim... is a fascinating, visually and narratively complex adaptation of a graphic novel, but was a flop at the box office. For better or worse, his former collaborators seem to have found a far more accessible North American vehicle by which to indulge their similarly geeky obsessions.

Paul is directed by Greg Mottola, a writer and director who made his name on the brief but brilliant TV sitcom Freaks and Geeks, created and produced by Judd Apatow. It was a shrewd move for Pegg and Frost to choose someone like him for this project - a director with a keen comedic eye, a background in independent film, and yet also a proven mainstream track record following Superbad (2007). Bringing with him a reputation for a related, but American, style of ‘geek’ comedy, it was presumably hoped that Mottola could act as a bridge for material which constituted such an odd mix of U.K and U.S sensibilities.

Yet in practice there is also something rather offputtingly smug and self-congratulatory about the combination. Partly because both contingents come from such modest backgrounds, Paul starts to feel a little like a celebration of success - of being famous enough to make such a movie, with this level of special effects, and with so many famous names. It becomes obvious that there is a big difference between geeky outsiders making tributes to their favourite genres (say, Hot Fuzz), and those who are now manifestly insiders doing the same. Furthermore, whereas Scott Pilgrim... was so relentlessly idiosyncratic as to be alienating to mainstream audiences, Paul sees its makers apparently desperate to ingratiate themselves now that they have earned their big-budget platform.

A good example of this is the moment when Graeme lies dying at the film's climax, only to be instantly brought back to life by Paul. Unlike a film such as Shaun of the Dead, which managed to convey real danger in spite of its comedy, here we can never for one moment believe that Graeme will die. This is partly because of the clockwork-like inevitability of the event according to the genre rules the movie has been following; it is also because we know we are watching an unapologetically broad comedy. More than anything, though, it’s because the whole romp has been made to feel so safe by its unproblematic high concept and the innumerable famous faces who have graced the screen: this just doesn’t seem to be a production mode, or a world, in which bad things could happen to nice people. Equally, Mottola isn’t able to convey the anxiety surrounding male friendship that he has explored so successfully elsewhere. We are never encouraged to question Pegg and Frost’s cosiness together, with the opening gay couple joke simply being dropped and forgotten. This isn’t anything new for mainstream comedies, but it’s another indication of how happy Paul is to follow formula.

When reviewing Hot Fuzz on its initial release I was happy to report that it was as much as a buddy movie as an action picture, and it’s easy to see that Paul tries to follow a similar template. Structurally there are clear comparisons to be made, with bursts of choreographed action periodically interrupting the bickering comedy (here a farm house shoot-out and explosion, which dominates the trailer, is a decent but not exceptional set piece). Yet the movie seems so desperate to follow this template that it forgets its own rules and focuses so much on the ‘buddy’ element that it fails to commit sufficiently to its action plot in the manner of Wright’s movies.

Paul, then, is a noble if slightly smug attempt to combine modes, and one that could easily have worked far better than it did. In theory there should be more to be made out of such cross-continental collaboration, and with fellow Brits Steve Coogan and Ricky Gervais currently wielding some power in Hollywood, I for one will be interested to see whether any meaningful combinations manage to occur.

This Alternate Take was published on March 26, 2011.