There were all sorts of laughter going on during my viewing of Paul: tittering, snorting, giggling, even a guffaw or two…and those were the sounds just coming from me. Mrs. Speculator made some noise too, and the rest of the audience as well, but I think I was the noisiest other than the two underage girls who snuck in late and sat in the back talking through the whole thing (my lawn, get off it!). Paul makes no bones about what it is; its advertisements are deception-free. Two British nerds travel through the American Southwest and pick up an alien who has escaped from his holding facility after decades hidden away from the public. What the commercials and trailers don't show is how aware Paul is of classic science fiction and how much of an homage it is to Steven Spielberg.
But then, you had to imagine it would be the case. Written by and starring two well-known British geeks, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Paul has the pedigree. And lest there be any mistake in their devotion, the movie opens with their Graeme and Clive visiting Comic-con in San Diego, where they shill their "Nebulon award winning" novel that features Graeme's illustration of an alien with three breasts on the cover. Nerd culture is an underpinning of Paul but it is not essential to the story-telling itself; much like picking up on visual cues on TV's Big Bang Theory, the references add some flavor to the story but do not dominate it. Admittedly, there were moments when only Mrs. Speculator and I laughed, but those moments seemed fairly esoteric and did not take away from the rest of the audience enjoying the rest of the movie.
More interesting was how tightly the movie tied itself to Steven Spielberg. Some references are easy to spot, most notably Paul's fondness for Reese's Pieces and a flashback where Paul offers some guidance to the director himself, while some were not. Especially delightful to me were the references to Duel, Spielberg's first full-length wide-release movie. However, Paul doesn't just mimic and refer to Spielberg's work, it builds off of it and the expectations set by Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET. Nearly any adult audience member will recognize these and appreciate the comic rifts on them.
It turns out that the comic center of the movie is in that space between the expectations for Spielbergian (if I may coin a term) aliens and the reality of Paul himself (voiced by Seth Rogen). While he may look like what has become the stereotype for aliens visiting Earth, he acts far more human than those stereotypes provide for. He smokes, he farts, he curses like a sailor. And he delights in these things, rejoicing in the visceral nature of being alive and who he is. If there is a moral to this story, it would lie in there, a sort of extraterrestrial "don't worry, be happy." But even suggesting that there is a moral to this comedy is giving Paul more layers than it probably warrants. In fact, as the movie concludes, Paul himself reminisces on what moral the companions may have picked up on their adventure and decides that there probably wasn't much.
Especially funny are the reactions of a fundamental literalist Christian family that Paul and his rescuers run into. The stereotype is thick and heavy, but the logic is ruthless: the Bible does not mention aliens and so they must not exist. And how would Bible-toting evangelicals react to the most effective demonstration of their mistaken beliefs? With disbelief and, according to Paul, with slapstick humor. Kristen Wiig plays a suddenly disenfranchised Ruth, the evangelical who is convinced of her mistakes and now furiously wants to make up for lost time.
The only weak point in the movie is a single joke that falls astonishingly flat at the end. It's a horrible pun, apropos of nothing in the rest of the movie, and the characters themselves laugh at it with far more gusto than it deserves. But other than that, Paul is a delightful romp. Charming and witty, in other hands it would be fodder for a sequel, but I hope that the creators show as much grace now that the movie has been released as they did as they were making it.