Has anyone seen my sense of humor? It was here a minute ago. I must have lost it. What else would explain how I sat stone-faced through Paul. Not a laugh, not a chuckle, not a titter. I smiled once, when Blythe Danner delivers a line to Sigourney Weaver that Weaver first delivered in Aliens, one of several homages to science fiction movies. But that was it.
I don’t really think my sense of humor has gone missing. I think, once again, that Hollywood has failed to bring the funny. Paul just never gives you anything much to laugh at. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost specialize in movies that have great central ideas (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) but then fall apart in the execution. Here two vacationing sci-fi fanatics from England visit the locations of UFO sightings, when they run into an actual alien, a dope-smoking, obscenity-spouting pop culture addict. In other words, Seth Rogen. It’s a joke that lasts for about as long as the trailer, but at 104 minutes, the joke wears awfully thin awfully fast.
According to the story, Paul is the alien who crash-landed at Area 51 way back when. Since then, he’s been advising everyone from Washington, D.C. to Hollywood. Now his captors are finished with him and want to turn his brain into a tray full of heavy apps. Enter our heroes, who try to help him escape. Not funny, right? In fact, it sounds more like a standard science-fiction action thriller. Question: does the concept have to be funny in order for the movie to be funny? Maybe not. Mars Needs Moms is one of the funniest concepts/titles I’ve heard in a long time, but it isn’t enough, I guess, if the box office is any measure.
So funny must come from the execution, right? We’ve had threatening aliens (War of the Worlds, Alien). We’ve had lovable aliens (ET and, well, ET). We’ve even had straight-faced, no-nonsense aliens (The Day the Earth Stood Still, John Kerry). We’ve even had funny aliens (Men in Black), so why isn’t Paul funny? After all, he looks like a hydrocephalic lizard with the pallor of that leftover chicken leg in the back of the refrigerator. That’s funny, right? And he sounds like a cross between that roommate you never should have let in the door and Jeff Bridges in full Dude-mode. Isn’t that funny? Paul spends a lot of time trying to maintain his buzz, swearing, scratching his privates. He consumes coffee and bagels, cigarettes, pot, live birds, and Reese’s Pieces. But these details never rise above the mildly amusing. He does have at least one good rant. He hates it when Earthlings assume he’s going to anal probe them, and I’m with him on this. I’ve always wondered how it is that an alien life-form can supposedly travel clear across the universe and remain virtually undetected, but their most sophisticated method for examining human life is the anal probe. Really? I mean, really?
And doesn’t context count when it comes to funny? At one point, the house owned by Blythe Danner’s character is blown to bits, killing one of the inept and unknowing government agents chasing Paul. A person has died. but as our heroes drive away, Blythe Danner’s character looks back at the destruction and moans, “My weed!” Maybe the discovery that an older woman is a pothead could be mildly amusing . . . to a twelve-year-old. (Hint to the young: her generation invented weed!)
Maybe the funniest moment, given away in the trailer, happens when Paul revives a dead bird, only to eat it. When his new friends cringe and groan, he says, “What? I wasn’t going to eat a dead bird!” But we’ve seen it too many times to laugh. And anyway, very quickly the theme-machine gets trundled in. “Have you ever fixed a dead person?” Simon Pegg’s character asks. And the big-headed, thin-lipped green guy replies, “Oh no, it could bounce back on me. Very dangerous.” And of course, you know, by movie’s end, our friendly alien will be called on to face that challenge.
Why is Paul so unfunny? Maybe because aliens who are comfortable among us Earthlings, steeped in our culture and caught up in our vices, are only funny for a minute, whereas aliens for whom all of this is new are funny minute-by-minute Think Jeff Bridges in Starman. Think Jerry Lewis in Visit to a Small Planet.
Jason Bateman does a good Tommy Lee Jones impression, but is forced by the script to hide his comic talent and timing. Kristen Wiig has a few moments as a Bible-thumper who swears in imaginative ways, calling a couple of threatening good-old-boys “You vaginas!” But that joke wears thin, too. Stephen Spielberg has a nice cameo. And Jeffrey Tambor has a good turn as a self-important science-fiction novelist who can’t stand his fans. And Jane Lynch has a couple of brief shining moments with her patented brand of sardonic, slightly mean-spirited, slightly suggestive off-the-wallery. Does she bring her own writer to these gigs, or does she make this stuff up? Sadly, even the talents of Wiig, Tambor, and Lynch aren’t enough to revive this dead bird.