The comedy duo has all but disappeared from movies today. A holdover from the days of vaudeville, double acts like Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy and lesser knowns like Olsen and Johnson or Wheeler and Woolsey were in great abundance in Hollywood’s Golden Era and the concept survived up to the 1950s and early 1960s with the likes of Hope and Crosby and Martin and Lewis. Today, it seems as if the comedy duo, two comic actors appearing together in a variety of different roles across different films, has pretty much disappeared.
But if anyone could lay claim to that comedic heritage these days, it would be Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Almost immediately with their pairing on the British television series Spaced, the two have shared an on-screen chemistry that has guaranteed laughs. Together with Spaced director Edgar Wright, the pair have brought that dynamic to the big screen with the zom-rom-com Shaun Of The Dead and their buddy-cop/action film riff Hot Fuzz. And while each has done work separately, none of it has sparkled in the way that their work together does.
Pegg and Frost’s next pairing will be the movie Paul, and it will mark a couple of firsts for the two. It will be the first time that they are working without Wright, either directorially or on the screenplay. As Wright was busy directing Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, so Adventureland helmer Greg Motolla has stepped behind the camera for Paul. (Wright is serving as an executive producer on the project, so he at least retains a bit of a hand in the proceedings.) And where Shaun and Fuzz were jointly scripted by Pegg and Wright, Paul marks the first time that Pegg and Frost have sat down to collaborate on a screenplay. The result is a Hope and Crosby-esque road trip across America from the San Diego Comic-Con to Roswell, New Mexico and then points north.
Graham and Clive are two uber-science fiction/fantasy geeks from England to the famed San Diego Comic-Con to promote their recently published fantasy novel, Jelva- Alien Queen Of The Varvak. Unfortunately for them, their appearance doesn’t go very well, with them only selling three copies of the book. But the pair doesn’t let their bad luck at the convention deter them from the second half of their planned American adventure- renting an RV and driving out to Roswell, New Mexico and the fabled Area 51 in the hopes of seeing a real UFO. Graham and Clive get more than expected though, when they encounter a “grey alien” who has escaped from the top secret government labs there. Introducing himself with the unlikely name of Paul, the alien persuades Graham and Clive to drive him to Wyoming and a rendezvous with a spaceship to take him home. However, the government isn’t too happy with Paul’s travel plans and a pursuit of the alien is launched, headed by the relentless Agent Zoil.
Graham and Clive are, to be generous, not the most socially graceful people, but their geekiness gives them a common point from which to relate to each other. Their speech is peppered with Star Trek, Star Wars and Back To The Future references and they way they can complete each other’s sentences hints at more than a bit of a bromance. However, when it comes to dealing with someone outside of fandom, they aren’t as articulate, often stammering and turning red. But while these two characters definitely have some of the stereotypical traits of nerds that have become standardized tropes in Hollywood films for years, Pegg and Frost have managed to invest Graham and Clive with a degree of depth that keeps the characters from becoming caricatures, while also avoiding the more egregious cinematic nerd traits. No taped eyeglasses, underwear in heads or rubber Spock ears on these two just because they are science-fiction fans. If anything, Graham and Clive share a dynamic similar to Michael Cera and Jonah Hill’s characters in Motolla’s Superbad, so it is easy to see why the director was attracted to the material here.
But while reading the part of Paul the alien, it is hard not to visualize animated television series American Dad’s own sardonic, wisecracking, chain smoking Area 51 escapee gray alien, Roger. At least the script is smart enough to recognize the similarities and makes it fodder for a joke. When Paul speaks his alien name, the boys mistake it for “Roger.” And where American Dad’s resident extra-terrestrial must stay pretty much the same character week-in and week-out, Paul has an emotional arc he travels over the course of the screenplay, its surprising destination a lonely old woman living in a cabin in the woods of Wyoming.
As a comedy, Paul is not necessarily just funny bit of dialogue after funny bit of dialogue, although there is plenty of that. Much of the humor is also born out of Graham and Clive’s reactions to the situations that they find themselves in. In that way, the script has several moments that work as satire on various strata of American society. Also, I get the feeling that many laughs will come more from Pegg and Frost’s performances and physical reactions in these situations, than from just the scripted lines. Many of the jokes have ways of continually paying off throughout the script. A running gag about burnt out light bulbs makes a surprising appearance in the film’s closing moments, while an off-the-cuff joke involving Steven Spielberg stealthily serves to set up the film’s climactic location.