British comedy duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost attempt to replicate the success of their cult British genre comedies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz with Paul, their first American studio comedy, their first screenplay and, crucially, their first film without director and co-writer Edgar Wright. The results are a so-so mix of boisterous male-bonding, sci-fi references and chasing around; not particularly good but not awful either.

After a prologue that might have come directly from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Paul opens with sci-fi nerd best pals Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) wandering through San Diego’s geek festival Comic Con as preamble for a road trip through America’s best known UFO hotspots. Their first stop is Roswell, a town deep in the Nevada desert famous for an alleged crash landing by an alien craft in the late 1940s. After a close encounter with a pair of violent rednecks (David Koechner and Jesse Plemons), Graeme and Clive meet Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), a wise-cracking, chain-smoking alien being who is on the run after escaping from the US military base known as Area 51, where he has spent the last sixty years advising the government.

Faced with evidence of life on other planets and jumping at the chance to live out a real-life ET fantasy, Graeme and Clive take Paul into their wagon and hit the road. Paul must make his way to Devil’s Mountain in Wyoming where his mother-ship will be waiting to take him home. Things get more complicated when the trio accidentally kidnap Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a one-eyed Bible-basher who wears a t-shirt that depicts Jesus shooting Darwin in the head. Her father (John Carroll Lynch), fearing his daughter has been abducted by aliens, gives chase with his shotgun. Meanwhile, mysterious Man In Black Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) is hot on Paul's trail, aided and abetted by clueless FBI agents Haggard (Bill Hader) and O'Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio), all taking commands from an unseen female agent known as ‘The Man’.

With Pegg and Frost having been clutched to Hollywood’s bosom following the cult success of their previous films at the American multiplexes, expectations were high for Paul. And, although there are obvious similarities and clear comparison points, Paul is a very different film to those the duo made with Edgar Wright; broader, more commercially appealing and gentler than its predecessors. The central pairing have bags of chemistry, as you’d expect from real life best friends, a natural energy that transfers well to the screen. Still, their screenplay is short on surprise, thin on plotting and is lacking a few jokes. It’s also curiously lacking in any kind of interpersonal conflict, the root of much of the laughs in the pairs previous outings. It’s perhaps unfair to criticize the pair for not forming a better bond with a CGI cartoon, but while Rogen’s tiny, grey alien is well written and skilfully rendered, he is never convincingly real.

Paul contains so many nods to the sci-fi genre, Pegg and Frost are in danger of ending up in neck braces. Almost every frame of the film contains a reference to a classic space opera, to the point where the story is consumed by homages and name-drops. The story becomes a procession of reference points – connected by the chase – leaving the characters and their relationships hostage to predictability. Unlike the pair’s British films, there is no element of subversion in this pastiche, no sly inversion of expectations and therefore, no surprise.

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