Mel Brooks once proudly declared that his movies "rise below vulgarity," and it's a reasonable bet that any film prominently featuring Seth Rogen will exercise its own right to wallow in raunch. So while Rogen may be providing the voice for the title alien in the new comedy Paul, don't expect a cuddly E.T. on the order of Steven Spielberg's famous creation. Paul doesn't ooh and ahh; he gets to the point in plain English, as when he asks a startled human worried about undergoing the clichéd ritual of anal probing, "Why does everyone always assume that? How much can I learn from an ass?"
Often lewd, frequently crude, but always more clever than expected, Paul is ultimately a sweet homage to pop culture geeks, sci-fi aficionados and anyone who came of age on a steady diet of Spielberg blockbusters. Created by the acting-writing team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost — the British lads behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz — the film casts the pair as Graeme and Clive, who've traveled to the U.S. to attend a sci-fi convention and make their own pilgrimage to all the reported UFO sites (Roswell, Area 51, etc.). At one of these locations, they stumble across Paul, an extraterrestrial who's been held by the government for 60 years and has just made his great escape. Pursued by the terse Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) and his bumbling subordinates (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio), Paul talks Graeme and Clive into helping him elude his pursuers long enough to make contact with his own kind and get off this rock. Along the way, they pick up Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), a half-blind, trailer park-dwelling Bible-thumper whose attire leans toward T-shirts featuring an armed Jesus blowing out Darwin's brains while uttering, "Evolve This!"
The aforementioned example of the movie poking holes in religious hypocrisy clearly illustrates that subtlety isn't the norm when the film strays outside its comfort zone of cinematic homage — Christian zealots, bigoted rednecks and pompous authors all find themselves in the line of fire, and the barbs are rather obvious (albeit usually funny). But when it comes to mining its fantasy-flick material, Paul is often slyly subversive: At one point, Clive reveals that he's always been interested in aliens — not since Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, as one might expect, but since Mac and Me, a dreadful and justly forgotten E.T. rip-off from the late 1980s. The film's sneakiness even extends to the casting of the primary villain, and an inversion of a classic sci-fi line once spoken by this performer might well leave viewers cheering.
Yes, it's that kind of a movie, specialized enough to fulfill the faithful but universal enough to make everyone feel invited aboard the mothership.