Paul: The Realization of Conceits
To be as blunt as possible, there is very little to say about Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s film Paul. If you enjoyed the parodic sendoffs in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz but also appreciate science fiction films, then you already plan on seeing Paul. You no doubt already plan on enjoying the film as well; you will not be disappointed. Like the other two films, the beats of parody hit quite soundly while a very solid heart beats beneath. The main difference between those films and the new release are the American setting, the higher budget, and the more local (or recognizable) cast.
What further differentiates this film in my mind from the other two films, not to mention the science fiction and comedy worlds in general, is that it made me reconsider the conceits we make when indulging in media. Fiction is a form of entertainment that requires the audience to suspend its disbelief. People talk about this all the time, often when defending the more ludicrous aspects of a media property when someone mentions a suddenly misguided spark of logic that has come to mind. “It’s a movie! You’re supposed to suspend your disbelief!” There’s no need for logic. There’s no need for realism. This is a movie!
The need to suspend disbelief has wormed itself deep into our sensibilities to the point that we generally do not even think about it. Well, at least for those of us focused on the bigger, more bombastic films. In watching a movie like Star Wars we focus on the unreality of easy space travel, sound in space, laser swords that magically know where to stop extending, and certain aspects of the force. That is a lot to wrap one’s head around. But they distract from poor acting in the original three films. (The prequel trilogy is a debate I really don’t want to have right now. Arguably, the world was so well realized and too cleanly captured by digital equipment that it became too surreal, and the poor acting, dialog, and direction came to the forefront.) Science and comedy films hide the audience’s conceit of the poor performances under these larger than life details.
I could provide examples left and right, but only a few are necessary to this certain crowd. Nathan Fillion is a good actor but not great. He thrives playing huge characters with deeply nested senses of humor because he gets to live in a world where either cowboys fly spaceships or mystery writers get to work in the field with police. Seth Rogen is NOT a good actor, but he’s a funny guy. He thrives in worlds where a virgins in their 40’s allow the tutelage of severe adultolescents, a random so-called hot woman is impregnated by him but doesn’t think of the consequences of having a baby in her relatively high profile career, he can work side-by-side with another cop who thinks it’s a good idea to take a minor out for a joy ride to prove that age doesn’t make you less cool, and Adam Sandler fears his mortality and takes in a complete stranger as a confidant. Real characters don’t need to be realized in these instances.
Along came Paul. The central conceit is that an alien has been on our planet for decades and has been informing our pop science fiction sensibilities. Anything goes from there. The titular character can be a rude guy on a quest, and Pegg and Frost can be two Englishmen who attend Comic Con and then take a road trip with minimal harassment or real road trip difficulties. I believed in this world, why not? No different than anything else.
Then Blythe Danner appears on the screen as Tara Walton, the adult version of the little girl from the opening scene. She has what amounts to a few minutes of exposition, explaining her character’s background and relationship with Paul – and everything else in the movie came across as total tripe in comparison. Blythe Danner is an actress, and she is absolutely amazing. It doesn’t matter that she said, “You crash-landed on my dog. I pulled you from the wreckage. You were taken away. I’ve been teased my whole life and ostracized because I couldn’t stop believing that you exist. I’ve grown up sad and alone.” She delivered the dialog like she believed it. She made me believe it. In a handful of minutes she became a real person, while everyone else on screen was a simple, pathetic caricature. Blythe Danner is amazing.
We need big characters for these big movies. Most performers can only really pull off one-note characters. When you need actual depth, you’re pulling from an incredibly small pool. Someone might say that these characters have depth, just look at their backgrounds. Performances are about showing, not telling. It’s not just saying, “I watched my parents die in an alley when I was a kid.” It’s not even showing that scene. That gets us to logically accept these characters, but the performances are the real show. Tara Walton’s background may have been explained to the audience, but you could literally see it on Danner’s face, in Danner’s eyes, as she performed. I don’t see that in many of the performances I see in the somehow less dramatic media.
This of course does not take away from my love for science fiction and comedy. It just makes me disappointed. Writers and directors can only do so much in creating the worlds and the characters that inhabit them. Performers need to step up and do their part in making these characters real. Bigger isn’t always better. I know these roles are often written that way, but a good actor can bring in the subtle characterizations while also fulfilling the bigness quota. I’m sure there are science fiction and comedy films that have actors in them that do that, but how many have come out in the last 20 years?
Did I like it?
Absolutely. I immediately contacted my brother to tell him it was funny, fantastic, and phenomenal. Pegg and Frost were their usual funny selves, Kristen Wiig got to play someone other than her usual five characters (and be really adorable, to boot), and I loved Jason Bateman’s role. The story was well plotted, and the scifi references weren’t too insider. (Note: To be extra prepared for the film, see E.T., Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Aliens, and maybe have an inkling of who Mulder is.) Did I mention that Blythe Danner stole the film and instantly made me want to protect her from the horrors of the world after Paul?