Friday, February 17, 2012

Film Friday: Paul (2011)

I’m a fan of Simon Pegg’s work. Shawn of the Dead was incredibly witty, clever and funny. It was a brilliant homage to zombie films. Hot Fuzz wasn’t quite up to Shawn’s standards, but was still well done and had great moments. Paul is flat. It also suffers from a giant liberal sucker punch.

** spoiler alert **

Paul is the story of two nerds from Britain, Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost), who run into a real alien, Paul (Seth Rogen), while touring the American southwest. Paul has been on earth for decades and has run away from the government. Pegg and Frost decide to give him a lift. Soon they pick up Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), a Christian fundamentalist. The rest of the movie is a slow motion chase as they take Paul to a rendezvous point to be picked up by his own people.
Why Paul Doesn’t Work: The Sucker Punch
Let’s start with the sucker punch. Most of what people call sucker punches aren’t. For example, interpreting two groups of penguins helping each other as a message promoting collectivism and the United Nations is downright paranoid. And others are too weak to matter, like making an oil company a generic villain. But genuine sucker punches do bother me, and this film has one. Here’s why.

Paul was marketed as a comedic homage to science fiction, and no mention was made that this film would attack Christian fundamentalists, but it does, and it’s mean-spirited about it. Right after Pegg and Frost pick up Paul, they run across Kristen Wiig. Wiig plays an ignorant, closed-minded Christian fundamentalist who fights with the nerds over the issue of Creationism. Shortly thereafter, Paul implants his knowledge of the universe into her mind. Suddenly, she realizes there is no God and that she’s been wasting her life trying to be moral. For the rest of the film, she drinks alcohol, smokes dope, swears every other word, and become hypersexual. She also expresses disdain for other fundamentalists, whom she now views as stupid.

These are direct attacks on the beliefs of fundamentalists and on their intelligence. There is nothing good-natured about these attacks. Indeed, substitute “American Indian” for fundamentalist and then ask yourself if it would be considered good-natured for an American Indian character to suddenly realize that their beliefs are stupid, to adopt the exact opposite behaviors associated with Indian culture, and then to denigrate other American Indians for being stupid. Odds are, that wouldn’t go over too well, would it?

Further, Wiig’s father is presented as the typical Hollywood trope for fundamentalist Christians. He is a hateful man, who dominates and terrifies his daughter. When confronted with anything of which he disapproves, he literally reaches for his shotgun and his Bible. He is, of course, murderous.

None of this was good-natured. To the contrary, it is denigrating and insulting. None of this was necessary for the plot either. But more importantly, none of this was anything audiences would have expected from the topic of this film or the marketing of this film. That’s what makes this a genuine sucker punch. And so you know it was intentional, both Pegg and Frost are atheists who told the BBC they wanted the film to explore atheism.
Why Paul Doesn’t Work: The Humor
Sucker punch aside, this film is just flat. In many ways, Paul seems like the kind of film Judd Apatow would make if he were smarter. Indeed, despite the really broad topic Pegg and Frost have chosen with Paul, it is in essence an Apatow film with almost all the jokes being about swearing, being gay, or having sex. Further, the jokes are generic and are carried on FAR too long.

Swearing: About 90% of the jokes in Paul involve swearing. And I don’t mean that swearing is used to convey the joke. Instead, the fact that someone is swearing IS the joke. For example, it’s supposed to be funny that Paul swears. And the first couple times it is. But it soon becomes part of his character and just isn’t funny anymore. Yet, they keep treating each swear like a punchline.

Kristen Wiig swears too. In fact, she swears constantly. Here the joke is that being freed from her religious stupidity, she is now free to swear, which she does with reckless abandon. But, and this is supposed to be the funny part, she’s not good at it, so her swearing is awkward. This may have worked in theory, but it was very poorly executed. Wiig doesn’t come up with clever or creative lines, nor does she do anything interesting like speak hidden truths or say the inverse of what the rest of us would say. She just randomly tosses out words, e.g. “ok, penis milk.” It’s just not funny. Moreover, they never stop this joke. She swears in every sentence for the last 70 minutes of the film and it becomes tedious.

Compare this with Debra in Dexter. She has a lot of problems including inappropriate swearing. But the way Dexter handles it is hilarious because of the timing, the word choice and the reactions of those around her. Her outbursts are sporadic and so far over the top of what is appropriate that you literally can’t stop yourself from laughing. Wiig’s swearing, by comparison, is constant and without purpose. She might as well be adding a random word in every sentence.

Sex Jokes: Besides the constant swearing, Paul is largely a collection of sex jokes. Indeed, this isn’t the kind of film where you learn about an alien culture or get a new view of human nature. Instead, you get a series of jokes about anal probes and alien genitalia. You also get awkward jokes about sex with nerds, and you get a steady stream of gay jokes. Some of it’s funny, but it hardly lives up to the promise of an homage to science fiction.

Weak Referential Jokes: Finally, where this film does rise above Apatow’s work is in its homage to science fiction. Indeed, Paul is strewn with references to science fiction like a cowboy bar band playing the Star Wars cantina music, the use of lines like “boring conversation anyway” after a telephone gets shot, Blythe Danner punching Sigourney Weaver and saying “let him go, you bitch!”, and Paul sitting in the Raiders of the Lost Arc warehouse. In this regard, this film is very much like Shawn of the Dead where the references are well set up and used appropriately and creatively. The film also trusts its audience enough that it doesn’t try to point these references out.

That said, however, this film is way too shallow in this regard. Indeed, whereas Shawn of the Dead was tightly written, this film wanders and abandons the homage for large stretches as they revert to the sex and fart jokes. For example, the opening is great, as they begin at Comic-Con and they briefly lampoon many of the excesses and oddities of nerd culture. But this lasts only two minutes. Then they switch to gay jokes. Then there’s another brief montage of alien-conspiracy culture as they drive an RV through the southwest, which ends in gay jokes. At this point, you’re about five minutes into the film and beyond this point, the science fiction jokes become scarce until the ending. There certainly are references to specific science fiction movie moments throughout, but they aren’t the focal point anymore. Instead, the film becomes a chase film with occasional references to science fiction mixed in between the swearing jokes, the sex jokes, and the atheistic proselytizing.

That’s why this movie didn’t work for me. Whereas Shawn of the Dead was an incredibly smart movie which distills zombie films to their essence, Paul is a stupid Apatow-like comedy disguised as something smarter and with an obnoxious sucker punch running throughout.


tryanmax said...

Ugh. What is it with smug British comedians? Reminds me of Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying, which was also a sucker punch. Even now, the IMDB synopsis makes no mention of the fact that Gervais' character "makes up" God.

Anonymous said...

I believe Hunter Duesing, in his BH video recap of the film, said that Pegg and Frost initially had a much more nuanced take on religion but the studio made them dumb it down. I have not read this anywhere else (nor I have I put in any effort to look), but I am inclined to believe him.

Having said that, this film lacks one important element that their other two films had: Edgar Wright, the director. He was busy directing the infinitely better Scott Pilgrim vs. the World which went from new release to underrated cult hit in about 24 hours. :-) Paul was directed by Greg Mottola, one of Apatow's guys (though, to be fair, he directed Superbad which I like).

Oddly, I think this is Seth Rogen's best performance, but that's not saying much. I don't think any of the cameos were really worth it, the "Agent Lorenzo Zoil" gag fell flat (of all the possible references to make!), and they didn't do enough with the premise. I like Pegg and Frost but this film came across as "Pegg and Frost sell out." Also, their British "stock company" of actors from their previous films was sorely missed.

Anonymous said...

tryanmax -

The problem with The Invention of Lying, aside from the fact that it wasn't funny at all, was that it was really three short stories in search of a better movie: a nice love story, an interesting what-if scenario about a world that doesn't lie, and the God stuff. Separately, each one is perfectly interesting and is better suited to a 30-minute Twilight Zone episode... together, they're all crap. The tonal shifts were also a problem (namely the scene with the mother on her deathbed).

I watched this film and 2012 on a weekend and it was a very depressing weekend indeed!

tryanmax said...

Scott, that sounds like a horrible weekend. I can't think of any redeeming aspects to either of those films. (My apologies to Jennifer Garner and Amanda Peet, but you ladies just aren't my type.)

Scott Pilgrim is an awesome movie! Too bad it was marketed all wrong.

Richard Dawkins said...

What are you zealots smoking? This was a great film! Oscar-worthy!

T-Rav said...

The main problem with this movie is that the whole "alien using profanity and making sex jokes!" thing is funny for five, maybe ten minutes, and then it gets increasingly annoying. Especially if you have nothing to add to it. And especially if the alien is being voiced by Seth Rogen.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, In many ways, it's very similar to Invention of Lying in that regard. (1) It's not a film which you expect turn to into an anti-religious rant, (2) it was never advertised as such, (3) they clearly intended it as such, and (4) it's not pro-atheist so much as "anti-stupid-f**ing-religious-idiots".

Unlike Lying, this one is actually pretty funny at times and is very enjoyable in many ways, but it's not enough because too much of it is just dull and it KEEPS punching you. If they'd just dropped the "look how stupid this religious girl is" bit then it would have been an annoyance, but the rest of the film might have been ok (dull, but ok). Instead, they just kept smacking you in the face with it.

T-Rav said...

Also, I really dislike Kristen Wiig. Some of her SNL schtick is pretty funny--"Target Lady," anyone?--but I don't think she's nearly as good at it as some people seem to: "some people" mainly being "Loren Michaels," who puts her in Every. Single. Sketch. She's not a great comedian. Stop it.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, All excellent points.

First, this was directed by one of Apatow's guys and boy does it ever feel like it. The scenes drag and whenever a great sharp moment comes up, he weakens it by letting the scene meander for another minute or two.

Secondly, they have said they wanted to explore the issue further. But whether or not that's true, the problem here is not the exploration of atheism so much as the blatant, nasty attack on Christians. In other words, it wouldn't bother me in the slightest if this film was about why atheists are right... that would be interesting and provocative. BUT this film isn't that. It never says a word that is pro-atheist. It instead tells us "religious people are idiots."

And even worse, as I mention, they're not even clever about it. The premise of having her being in shock from having her entire belief system shattered could have been very interesting, EXCEPT they chose to deal with it only by making her a sex fiend and having her swear non-stop. That's about as shallow a take as is possible.

I almost talked about the Zoil gag. I guess the gag is that this is not a science fiction reference and therefore was supposed to stand out. Only, so much of what they did had nothing to do with science fiction that there was no way for audiences to "get" the joke.

I do agree that this was Rogen's best performance, but that isn't saying much. In fact, this was a very un-Rogen performance and Paul is easily the best character on screen.

And all in all, the key problem for the film is right there in your last paragraph: "they didn't do enough with the premise." That's the whole problem.

Anonymous said...

T-Rav -

I like Kristen Wiig but I'm not a big fan of her original characters on SNL. Part of the problem is this: a sketch will start, there will be an interesting idea or premise, and I'll think to myself, "Hmm, this is cool." But then Wiig shows up as some crazy character and the sketch ends up revolving around her with no room for anything else.

And with the exception of Mr. Bill, I've hated nothing on SNL more than... [sigh] Gilly.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Years ago, I came up with a great Star Wars name gag which would've worked in this film:

A character named Manny Bothans, so you can have the line, "Manny Bothans died to bring us this information." :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Invention of Lying had a lot of problems and you put your finger on some of the biggest. But the single biggest problem with the film was that it was just a nasty movie. Everything in it was nasty -- the characters were nasty to each other, the premise was nasty, the execution was nasty. It was an angry, unpleasant film. In that kind of environment, it's very hard to make a good film. Add really weak jokes (often based on insulting the audience), a lack of coherent plot, and a poor execution of the whole "what if there is no lying" aspect of the film, and it was a real turd.

Paul isn't anywhere that bad. It's only nasty at times, but is otherwise a decent story with decent characters... it's just flat (apart from the sucker punch).

I also have to wonder how gays would react to this film? It keeps saying "it's ok to be gay," but then all of the characters keep slurring each other as possibly being gay. And they get kind of nasty about it.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I agree, no redeeming qualities to either film. What did you think was the problem with the marketing of Scott Pilgram? It struck me that it marketed at both the Apatow crowd and the nerd crowd? I guess the Apatow people didn't show up, but it sounds like the nerds did?

CrispyRice said...

Oh, I've wanted to see this. I didn't read your whole review so as not to spoil it, but I'm bummed to hear about a "liberal sucker punch." Grrr!

AndrewPrice said...

Actually, I know the Dawkins comment is a joke, but I want to point out that the problem here (i.e. why I think it's a sucker punch) is not that it speaks against Christianity. I have no problem with that. My problem is:

1. It's not something you would expect from the premise or the marketing, i.e. the film is deceptive about it's message.

2. The presentation is insulting. It's nasty and way-over-the-top. It's not thoughtful. In fact, it's not even pro-atheist so much as anti-Christians.

3. This suck punch runs throughout the film.

That's why I consider this bad.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, 100% right. They take something that is basically a shock value joke and run it for 98 minutes. That just doesn't work.

Yes, it's funny that Paul swears. In fact, it's hilarious at first. But each time it gets less and less funny. Yet, they keep acting like every swear is a punchline and they keep going back to that over and over and over throughout the film.

In effect, this film suffers from a severe lack of material.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I have to say that I have not been impressed by Wiig. I've seen her in a couple things and she always struck me as the weak link, even in an otherwise bad movie. In this film, again, she could have been dropped entirely and almost nothing would have changed and no one would have missed her.

tryanmax said...

The marketing group (somehow) failed to recognize this was a film for gamers. In the hyper-niched teen & 20/30-something marketplace, the gamer crowd Venns over the other two and several other crowds. A gamer-focused marketing strategy with emphasis on Michael Cera would have tipped off all three crowds and saved promotional $$$. Also, I get the impression that they were trying to target the fans of the graphic novel, which is stupid because they were a shoo-in audience.

What came instead was a convoluted marketing message that focused on the slacker-comedy angle and the rock-band aspect, both of which are character elements of Scott but barely related to the film itself.

I'm not sure if the marketing group just didn't get it or if they assumed the gamers inherently would. Either way, they approached it bass-ackwards. The fact that the movie looks like 1960s Batman brought up-to-date should have been selling point #1 and instead it was approximately #last.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, LOL! Brilliant!

That is the exact kind of joke this film was missing. I'm not saying it should have been zany, but it felt like a very "surface" homage to science fiction with only a few deeper jokes (like the bar band).

When I compare that to Shawn of the Dead and you realize that almost every moment of that film is a reference to something from a zombie film, this one really falls flat.

P.S. If I ever get around to writing my sci-fi comedy, I should steal that joke (with permission of course). :)

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, It's not a horrible film. It's ok. It's just dull. And the liberal sucker punch doesn't help.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Ah, that makes sense. I recall it being sold as a slacker comedy and a comic book. That probably skewed my expectations in fact because it took me a while to get into the film because it came across as rather poor as a slacker comedy. And I'm not into that particular comic book, so that didn't work for me either. Then the gaming elements hit me and felt incongruous because I wasn't expecting them.

My guess, by the way, is the marketing people didn't see it as a gaming film because gaming films in Hollywood are action flicks based on lead characters in best selling games. So they probably simply accepted it as a comic book and did their usual comic book promotions.

And you do a good job of explaining why that was a mistake.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

You can use the name but I reserve the right to use it in the future as well. :-) (Along with a mention on the acknowledgements.)

Re: Scott Pilgrim, I doubt the studio had any clue how to advertise it. It's a niche film to begin with, based on a graphic novel many haven't heard of, starring a kid who's kinda one-note.

Edgar Wright is actually the name that brought me in and I became a fan in 5 minutes. The film underperformed at the box-office but I think time will be kind to it - it already plays the midnight theater circuit in LA.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, that's actually the same conclusion I came to: the marketing group was incapable of recognizing it as a gamer film because it was not based on an existing video-game and the story line did not involve Scott being sucked into a computer.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Poor Manny can die doing the Saslow Maneuver... required reading at the Academy. ;)

I suspect Scott Pilgrim will continue with a strong cult following. I can't say I thought it was a good film by any stretch, but it was quirky and interesting and I see the appeal.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, LOL! It amazes me how one-tone the marketing departments have become for films, and how openly deceptive.

When you can see the same film being sold as a comedy, a drama, and an action thriller depending on which cycle of the marketing plan you are in, you know something has gone off the rails.

Now that would make an interesting sit-com centered around the marketing department of a film company!

DUQ said...

I liked Paul with the caveat that it wasn't as good as I'd hoped. I see the sucker punch aspect of Wiig's character, but I couldn't get past her just not being funny to care about the political aspects of it. It would have been a better movie all around without her character in it. I did enjoy Rogen's performance though, which is unusual for me.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, It's not a horrible movie and it's funny at times and enjoyable at others. It's just disappointingly flat. And the sucker punch stands out in this case.

Would I tell you not to see it? No. But I can't promise you a great time or that there will be anything memorable.

I think removing Wiig's character entirely would have cured a lot. For one thing, she adds nothing. For another, it might have forced them to find better ways to use the time.

I agree about this being Rogen's best performance and I suspect that has to do with the fact you don't see him. Thus, he's focusing purely on delivering the lines rather than trying to win us over with his non-existent charm.

Kelly said...

I'm like DUQ, I enjoyed it while I watched it, but I wasn't blown away or anything and I don't remember anything from it. I guess the best way to put it is that this film was forgettable.

Joel Farnham said...

So it is worse than The Invention of Lying? Well put me in the line that won't be watching Paul!

I couldn't get through The Invention of Lying so I never saw the sucker punch part. I did try 3 times. It just was too boring. This just makes me glad that I never could.

AndrewPrice said...

Kelly, That's a good way to put it. This film never lives up to its potential. It's not a horrid film, it's just flat. (With an insult thrown in.)

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I wouldn't say it's worse than Invention of Lying at all. Lying was just a vile and unpleasant film throughout. It had no redeeming moments, it wasn't bright or clever, it was never funny, and nothing in it was likable.

Paul isn't nearly in that category. Paul starts well and ends well, and it's got some funny moments throughout. It's just that it's a very, very flat film which seems to use the one joke over and over and over and over and over again.

Plus, it has this sucker punch in it. You can look past it, which you really couldn't in Lying, but it's right there and it's mean-spirited and it's not handled very well.

Let's put it this way, I'm not a fundamentalist and I don't subscribe to Creationism, but the attacks on both were enough to trigger my sense that these were insulting cheap shots meant to demean.

Doc Whoa said...

I expected a lot more from these guys. I didn't know an Apatow person was the director, but in hindsight I'm not surprised. The film just feels bland. It's got some nice moments, but all in all it feels bland.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, I did too. The concept is great and they did such great work with Shawn of the Dead and decent-but-not-great work Hot Fuzz. That made this disappointing. It had a more "professional" feel because of the way it was shot, but all in all it was too much gloss and not enough substance.

Doc Whoa said...

You make a great point about the swearing by the way, they play that joke out waaaaaaay too long, but it's also not the only joke that gets played out too long. A lot of the alien jokes throughout the film are "this is the alien all the films were based on." It's funny when he asks for skittles at the gas station and it's kind of funny when he say "Agent Mulder was my idea," but they keep going back to the same well repeatedly. I can think of six more jokes which were this same joke done in different ways.

When I think about the brilliant set up of "we're coming to get you Barbara!" in Shawn and then compare it with the obviousness here or like when Bateman shoots the phone, how that's wedged in there from out of the blue, I can't believe the same people wrote the two movies.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, That's true and that provides an interesting warning -- don't just keep reusing the same type of joke.

I think part of what made Shawn so brilliant was that it was unexpected. It was a very competent zombie movie on its own, which included lots of suspense and a very believable plot. But even more, they managed to seamlessly insert scenes that referred back to prior films without you even noticing until the joke hit you. That's where the genius lay, in that the references worked both as references but also worked within the context of the movie itself.

With Paul, the references felt much less organic. It felt like they had to go out of their way on several occasions to make them happen.

LawHawkRFD said...

Sounds like another film I'll be happy to ignore. I hesitate to watch any film with Seth Rogen anyway, and this just clinches it. He has made my skin crawl since he got his start in Freaks and Geeks. He gives slob/stoner humor a bad name.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, Doc, I think the first rule of comedy should be that you can take out all the jokes and still have a good film. The other first rule should be to make sure the jokes are funny.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Rogen actually does a good job here... surprisingly. I don't think you're missing anything by skipping this one, which is too bad.

T-Rav said...

I just watched Star Trek (2009) earlier this week, and I thought Pegg was pretty good in that. I also really liked Shaun of the Dead, which everyone else seemed to as well. Too bad he seems to have essentially wasted his own talent in this work.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Excellent first rule. If the film itself is good, then people will forgive a lot in terms of the joke quality. But of course, if the film is good, then the jokes will probably work better anyway. I think the basic plot in Paul is just too simplistic a vehicle for what they wanted:

Two nerds meet an alien and take it from point A to point B while being chased.

That's just not enough to hang the rest of the film upon. They needed something big which would have given them more to work with.

Plus, when it came time to each scene, they just didn't do what they needed. I watch Midnight Run again last night and I just marvel at how perfectly that movie is written. Each scene adds some complexity, some new challenge, and it's always believable and always adds to the depth of the story. That truly is the best chase movie I've ever seen. And when I compare Paul to it, I really see all the flaws in their way-too-simple story.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I'm a Pegg fan. He had even had an interesting villain role in one of the Doctor Who episodes. It's unfortunate that this film was so flat because the very idea has a ton of potential... they just didn't exploit it very well.

Doc Whoa said...

tryanmax, That's probably a great rule for any comedy unless you're doing a standup routine, and then your second rule is the most important. But even the best standup routines involve great story telling.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, I've always thought that too, that the best stand up routines involve storytelling rather than joke telling. In fact, what I remember from all the greats are the stories they told, not the specific jokes.

tryanmax said...

I guess I only had film in mind when I offered that rule, but you do make a point that the best stand-up usually involves a story of some kind. Even comedy that is a stream of one-liners is usually just a string of very short stories.

Narrative is essential to convey ideas. When we wax philosophical on the Commentarama sites, it is seldom outside of the context of some narrative, be it a news brief, a campaign event, or an episode of Star Trek. Heck, even the best songs seem to all be ballads.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I agree. I'm not entirely sure why it is, but it seems that humans are big on narrative. We want more than just a punchline. We want a whole story filled with actual people. Maybe it's because the narrative helps us relate to ourselves?

tryanmax said...

I think without narrative there can be no punchline. For something to be funny it needs to have a context because, as is often said, comedy is just tragedy reversed. Narrative provides context far more than setting, which could be argued to be the mere product of another larger narrative. Even when we are confronted with a joke at the outset of a narrative, we look to the setting, not because it is particularly meaningful in itself, but because it tells us something about what led up to the joke.

Sometimes we provide our own context where there isn't sufficient context already. That is why Paul's swearing is funny at first, because space aliens aren't "supposed" to swear. But the humor quickly fades because we soon understand that Paul, despite being a space alien, typically swears.

There are lots of theories about what makes funny funny. The one that I subscribe to is that laughter is a response to the unexpected. Even the "telegraphed" punchline is this way; laughter becomes a sympathetic (unsympathetic) response to someone else encountering the unexpected. The running gag works because, even though we come to expect it, we don't when to expect it. Going back to Paul, we come to expect him to swear every time he speaks, so it doesn't work. In any case, context is what makes funny funny.

As to why humans are drawn to narrative, it is tied to our drive to make sense of our surroundings. Narrative is an extremely useful tool for this. Actually, it might be the only tool. Even a simple science experiment has a beginning, middle and end. Smarter people than I have wrestled with the nature of time and why it exists. Maybe the answer is simply, because we need it.

tryanmax said...

Ask a question, eh?

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Excellent answer! I agree 100% and actually have nothing to add.

And I think you're right about the way this fails in Paul: to be funny, something must be unexpected. That's why it's funny that an alien swears -- because we don't expect it. That's also why it should be funny that the fundamentalist starts swearing. BUT once it becomes expected, it's not funny anymore. So when they start swearing in every scene, it becomes expected and it becomes dull.

Similarly, we aren't shocked by her doing drugs because she's already going through the sins one at a time in scene after scene, so seeing her doing drugs isn't unexpected.

In fact, the only part of that scene which is funny is when Paul says "this is the stuff that killed Dylan" and they protest that Dylan isn't dead. That's funny because it was truly unexpected. But them acting stoned isn't funny because that's what's expected.

There is a probably a HUGE lesson here for any budding comedy writers... if a joke is expected, don't do it, do something else.

This actually dove-tails with something I ran into in my first book. Every time I came to something "expected," I did something else and that really helped keep the plot moving. It seems that being predictable is a real trap as far as entertainment goes.

Individualist said...

I remember seeing this film and thinking to myself that Seth Rogan is such a one dimensional actor that he cannot even make a
CGI space alien appear to be a different character than the others.

It is funny when Paul swears because he is an alien the first times. Maybe, but not for me. Why because close your eyes and it is Seth Rogan. Same guy, same character he always plays.

Not that this is bad. I thought he was good in funny people but then again he played a more serious side to himself. Still, he played himself. This I think was one of the problems.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, I find it very hard to like Rogen as well. Like you, I think he's one-dimensional and he lacks comedic instincts. Plus, his version of comedy is generally childish and vindictive, which is rarely funny.

Outlaw13 said...

Never seen this one, and othing I've read here gives me the urge to change that.

Scott Pilgrim on the other hand, based on the previews I was looking forward to it. The actual film however starred Michael Cera, whom I find generally not that it was a bit of a chore. The ladies in the film however did a great job, so it was kind of a C+ for me.

Eric P said...

Bummer the referential jokes play less like the more subtle Shawn... than Pegg's Spaced series, where they constantly beat you over the head to show the viewer how "smart" the writers were. Sigh.

Thanks for the final nail in the coffin to even paying rental or streaming attention, Andrew -- much appreciated!

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, I generally find Michael Cera unwatchable as well. In fact, seeing his name is enough to turn me off a film. I did not personally enjoy Scott Pilgrim, but I could see it's appeal to a certain audience. It was quirky and had it's moments, but it just didn't appeal to my tastes.

Paul is one of those where you aren't missing much if you skip it.

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome Eric. And yeah, that's a good way to put it -- the referential jokes are more like Spaced than Shawn. A couple are clever, but almost none of them arise organically, i.e. they mostly feel forced.

In terms of seeing it, I often feel like I'm glad I saw something even if I didn't like it. This is doesn't feel that way. This one was ultimately forgettable, despite the great topic, and I'm pretty indifferent to having seen it.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Outstanding review, Andrew!

I'm not a fundamentalist although I used to play one for a short time.

Interestingly, most main stream fundamentalists aren't 100% fundamentalists.

For instance, except for Catholic fundies (very small sect), no fundie believes in the actual body and blood of Christ as written in the New Testament as Catholics do.

Thus most still believe in at least some symbology, young earth creationism aside.

I got the sense that the film makers were attacking all of Christianity, since their point was that there is no God (and they didn't even attempt to say why Paul was so certain of this).

If they were just attacking fundies in general then they wouldn't have gone that extra step and would've kept their sights on the most prevalent fundie beliefs (the young earth idea being the easiest to counter).

That being said, there are plenty of agnostics and atheists who believe that sins can generally be a bad thing.
Particularly the ones that cause a lot of destruction to others but also to the ones that commit them.

Morality doesn't have to have a religious context and neither does the well known and proven negative effects of sins (some obviously worse than others).

At any rate it was cringeworthy, unfunny and took me out of the film several times.

They kept beating that dead horse then they killed some more to beat with the other handful of jokes they had, just in case we didn't get it the first several times I guess.

Too bad because Paul did have a lot of potential.

BTW, I knew the sucker punch was coming, having read a few reviews at BH, but I had no idea they would use it in such an underhanded way and keep on going backing to that well several times

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben! You raise many interesting points as always. And I agree this film had much potential.

1. I also knew a sucker punch was coming as I’d heard that was the case in this film. And I’m not even generally susceptible to the whole sucker punch thing, i.e. it takes a lot before a sucker punch can harm a film for me. Thus, you know it’s bad when I’m complaining about a sucker punch. And in this film, it was bad because it was much more underhanded and nasty than I expected and it ran the course of the film.

This wasn’t just one character saying “gee, aren’t those conservatives nuts.” This punch became the theme of the film and it kept popping up over and over.

2. Totally agree about the lack of depth of their atheism. Paul says “there is no God.” (although at another point he also says his existence “proves all religions”) But he NEVER states a case for it. He and the nerds just take it as true and assume the religious people are idiots. That’s why I find the statement that they wanted to “explore atheism” to be such a crock because they never touched upon it. They just ridiculed religious believers.

3. I think you’re right that this was an attack on religion in general and not just fundamentalists. I think what they did was take the worst possible representative of religion, i.e. the most close-minded, nasty idiot they could create (and admittedly there are such people), and then wrongly pretended this person represents all religious believers. It would be like judging all Americans on Jerry Falwell.

4. Finally, you made this point: That being said, there are plenty of agnostics and atheists who believe that sins can generally be a bad thing.

This is very true. Morality doesn’t just come from religion, it has many sources including simple common sense. So there’s no reason for the Wiig character to go insane as she does and become a sexual, alcoholic, drug-abusing, swearing glutton...... unless they are making a nastier point. And I think they are. I think the point they are making is that religions retards you and causes you to be unprepared for the world. Thus, once “let out of the cult” (so to speak) you will have no sense of self-control because you’ve relied on fear of God to guide you. Translation: religious people are drones.

That to me, is what was really insulting.

Individualist said...


I actually don't dislike Seth Rogan. I think there have been roles that he wwas good in. Nut the problem is that these were few and really limited to what I guess is the Stoner Comedy genre ala Cheech and Chong.

Rogan tends to play roles that are supposed to be the likeable loser cool guy. He can do this well, but it is probably becuase he does not have to act.

But as you state most of his movies go too far and end up being swearing for swearing sakes.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, I also think that's what he does best. When he tries to branch out into anything other than a "likable stoner-loser," he fails miserably. And even as the stoner-loser, I think he needs a strong director to rein him in. For one thing, I think he really is an arrogant jerk and it comes across in his comedy. For another, he has a real nasty side which comes out in films like Green Hornet. Thus, I think he needs a director to tell him "stop being a jerk and stop treating people like garbage."

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Good insight there, Andrew.

Simply for the record (not based on anything you said): as for the sin thing, I meant that dispassionately and not prudishly and I speak from experience as well.

They ain't called deadly for nothin,' that's for sure.

When film makers insult most of their audience it really hurts the film, I think.

I'm not against lambasting any particular beliefs or groups from time to time if it's done with wit and not so nastily.
That seems to work best when it's done in an even handed manner.

Several people or groups could take offense at Airplane, for example, but very few do because it's never personal (okay, maybe with the Moony flower people it is but that's perfectly understandable). :^)

But no one was saying Nun's, Pilots, Flight Attendents, Doctors, ATC workers, etc., are idiots or perverts or whatever (and Jive really is another language so that part is true).

But vicious insults are personal and most film watchers can tell the difference.

What disappoints me the most is that Pegg and Frost appear to be militant atheists like Dawkins or Gervais.

I don't know that they are, but it appears that way and it really hurts their potential to do more good films like Shawn Of The Dead (and to a lesser extent Hot Fuzz).

I hope this doesn't become a recurring theme in their films (militant Atheism, which is a cult in it's own right) but time will tell.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben,

I agree. The thing about social commentary, whether it's done with humor or as a drama is that it needs to be fair, honest, and expose some hypocrisy or hidden truth. I didn't feel that was the case here at all.

First, they picked a very unfair representative for the topic. If you're going to take on "religion" then you need to take on a fair representative of it. Picking the most extreme example doesn't do that.

Secondly, they weren't honest about what they did. Even beyond picking a bad representative, they didn't treat her fairly in terms of how she would really react. Indeed, if we found out for certain right now that there is no God, we still wouldn't act the way she did. They also simply took the point as proven that she's wrong without ever proving it. AND they decided wrong = stupid, which is again unfair unless they can show some connection -- which they didn't bother showing.

Third, there was nothing insightful here. There are many "holes" in religion because it's based on faith, i.e. it can't be proven. What's worse, many organized religions get themselves lost in the procedures and lose track of the substance. All of those things are ripe for social commentary. But they didn't do that there. Instead, they just assumed religion was wrong and they began name-calling. To be effective social commentary, there needs to be some form of debunking, and that requires more just one jerk saying "you're all idiots."

Indeed, that's the thing about Airplane. Take the jive joke. It's funny because it's grounded in truth. Black people had invented their own language, patterned on pimp-speak. And many of them, including professionals, were using it. So when you had these two guy taking like pimps even though they were saying non-pimp things, it made the very accurate point that blacks were making themselves look bad speaking like that. That's a "cutting truth" and can't be counter-attacked as a smear because it is a truth. And that's why it works as social commentary. Ditto on all the other jokes -- they poked fun at things people knew to be true but wouldn't admit publicly.

That's not the case in Paul. In Paul, they are just put militant atheist attacks on screen and pretended they had said something insightful.

Finally, I agree about Pegg/Frost. This bodes poorly if they head off down this road like Gervaise has. At this point, Gervaise is so nasty and so not-funny that I will actively avoid his films.

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