Friday, March 18, 2011

Alienation Nation

Paul [**]

For me the films of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have always been something of a comedy event. I didn't know who they were the first time I went to see Shaun of the Dead, but I learned to make them synonymous with people who understood why we liked certain kinds of movies, people who respected and crafted those kinds of movies and as people who did it while making us laugh unabashedly, unashamedly. It was, and maybe can be again, wonderful. But it is not this time.

I have to admit I was excited for collaborator Edgar Wright not to be a part of this film because Greg Mottola has made some pretty excellent, unshowy comedies and I was still reeling from how flashy and empty (and unappreciative of its audience) Scott Pilgrim v The World appeared to be. I wanted something that was going to be more sincere, funny, honest and less flashy. I thought Mottola was going to nail this film. I didn't get what I wanted in any case. Without the injection of energy and crafty editing that Wright would have brought to the project the action that kicks in around the last half hour feels a little still born. There's no exclamation marks on the jokes, which is okay, I don't need that. I understand that it is not necessarily part of Mottola's arsenal to be over-the-top and high energy but it really might have benefited from such things. I think the magic of Simon Pegg might be lost outside of Hollywood blockbusters and I think the magic of Pegg and cohort Nick Frost is certainly lacking without Edgar Wright. The three of them are like Dr. Pepper when mixed together and without one of the ingredients you have a Mr. Pibb type beverage that no insistence from the masses is ever going to make taste the same. It's okay when that's what you want, but it isn't necessarily what you were expecting.

Don't get me wrong I don't mean to insist that Mottola is the Mr. Pibb of directors, but I must insist that Wright-Frost-Pegg never not collaborate together again and if a Greg Mottola kind of movie, with funny jokes and thoughtful characterization is going to peak its head out of the veil of coulda/shoulda/woulda that Paul wears over it's oddly shaped little green head then it is probably better that Mottola have the room to be himself.

Paul for anyone who didn't see the preview is about two comic book/sci-fi aficianados who are touring the country's UFO sights post Comic Con when they pick up an alien and end up with homophobic rednecks and government agents on their tail. They also kidnap a woman who runs an RV park only to have her gun toting father also head out after them.

The film's two nice surprises are that a gun toting secret agent played by Jason Bateman is not exactly who he appears to be, in the best possible sense. That he also resurrects a long dormant grade school phrase ("motherfucking titty sucking two ball bitch") is one of the film's two unmitigated pleasures. The other is that Paul in all his miracle working tendencies cures a woman of blindness in one eye, which her father later hails as a miracle from God, and gives the woman (a devout Creationist) a moment's pause. It's a shrewd moment that allows for the most important and successful element of science fiction to be acknowledged: that faith and what science teaches us be allowed to intermingle; possibly to challenge or even reaffirm our beliefs. I think the fact that an otherworldly being participates in this moment says more about the possibility of a God than not but the movie is quick to rebuff any notions of a higher power. That moment is also where the film finds a problem that I think speaks to the relative lack of success of this general enterprise. This close mindedness about its subject, that no other Pegg-Frost collaboration has had, seems to hinder their ability to embrace the totality of their story, transcend it and create a lasting work that can stand alongside whatever they're loving and lampooning.

In the past, Pegg and Frost are able to understand the appeal of Michael Bay films and zombie films without saying they are ridiculous. In fact, the two of them go hog wild celebrating the films without ever uttering the r word, but they can't for a moment acknowledge the possible lynchpin of science fiction. Even if only to say that man's ambition is what drives him to be closer to God, but they don't even say that, they just find a target to give the middle finger to. It's not the most troubling thing in the world, but it is definitely coming from two guys who should know better.

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