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The titular alien in Paul is, apparently, of crucial importance to our nation. He's escaped from a government facility with men in black in hot pursuit, but one gets the impression that it's not because of his cosmic wisdom. More likely, it's because within his diminutive frame lies power over a crucial sector of the U.S. economy: the origin of all fanboy movie-culture from approximately 1977 to 1990.
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost clearly adore talking back to movies they love, but that doesn't make them unique among filmmakers; Brian De Palma and Quentin Tarantino regularly pay homage to the cinema that inspired them. But in their previous collaborations like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Pegg and Frost have been unapologetic about their adoration in particular for the mass-market pop culture — zombie movies, buddy-cop action flicks — that they slurped up as 1980s teenagers. Paul is the latest manifestation of that enthusiasm, which results in something equal parts endearing, sloppy and overly ingratiating.
It's perfectly appropriate that Paul opens at San Diego's legendary Comic-Con, where Brit buddies and inveterate nerds Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are making their first wide-eyed visit. They decide they'll also take an RV road trip to landmarks of the alien-conspiracy set in the American southwest: Area 51, Roswell, the "black mailbox." It's during that voyage when they have their own close encounter with the aforementioned escaped alien (voiced by Seth Rogen), who needs help getting to a planned rendezvous with the mothership as he hides from the agent (Jason Bateman) following him.
At first glance, Paul might seem to be a unique twist on the alien visitor — full of interesting, mysterious abilities, sure, but also a guy who likes to smoke, drink and cuss. Rogen gives him the familiar Rogen-esque vibe of someone easily irritated with stupidity, who just wants to hang out and be left alone. That gives him more than a passing personality reference to another pop-culture character: He's Howard the Duck with oversized eyes.
Paul turns into a virtual cavalcade of quips, quotes and homages that only begins with E.T. For instance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Check. Back to the Future? Check. Aliens? X-Files? You betcha. The original Star Wars trilogy? Oh, if only I had another whole paragraph. Like it was some sort of nerdnip, Pegg and Frost give us familiar one-liners to roll around in until we're too giddy to think straight.
Past that, Paul doesn't offer much. Graeme and Clive pick up another traveling companion, Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a sheltered and pious woman whose conversion to a profanity-hurling machine is just one part of some easy shots at fundamentalist Christians. Almost all the jokes not based in pop culture seem to involve multi-hyphenated vulgarities. It's like somebody split Kevin Smith in two and gave them both English accents.
Though Paul does earn some good laughs, the filmmakers are so immersed in nostalgic rapture that they don't seem to care if a reference to 1988 E.T. ripoff Mac and Me is likely to inspire blank stares in today's audiences. There's nothing wrong with an enduring affection for the movies of your childhood, provided you pay your respects in a way indicating that, over the subsequent 20 years, you've grown up a little.