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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Paul journeys through its writers' pop-culture nostalgia
Nerd 'em up
Sci-fi conventioneers encounter an alien.
Sci-fi conventioneers encounter an alien.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost love using their movies to talk back to the movies they love. In previous collaborations like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, they have been unapologetic about their adoration for the kind of mass-market pop-culture - zombie movies, buddy-cop action flicks - that they would have slurped up as 1980s teenagers. Paul is simply the latest manifestation of that goofy enthusiasm, which results in something that is equal parts endearing, sloppy and overly ingratiating.

Paul opens at San Diego's legendary Comic-Con, where Brit buddies and inveterate nerds Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are making their first wide-eyed visit. They decide to take an R.V. road trip to landmarks of the alien-conspiracy set in the American southwest: Area 51, Roswell, the "black mailbox."

They don't expect that they'll have their own close encounter with the titular escaped alien (voiced by Seth Rogen), who desperately needs help getting to the mother ship as he hides from the government agent (Jason Bateman) who's following him. Paul is a unique twist on the alien visitor - full of interesting, mysterious abilities, but also a guy who likes to smoke, throw back some beers and pepper his remarks with not-for-prime-time words.

Eventually Paul turns into a virtual cavalcade of quips, quotes and homages that only begins with E.T. Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Check. Back to the Future? Check. Aliens? X-Files? You betcha. The original Star Wars trilogy? Oh, if only I had another whole paragraph. Like it was nerdnip, Pegg and Frost give us familiar one-liners to roll around in until we're too giddy to think straight. You'd best not be immune to the effects of that chemical compound, though, because if you are, then Paul doesn't offer a heck of a lot.

Graeme and Clive pick up another traveling companion in Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a sheltered and pious woman whose conversion to profanity-hurling machine is just one part of some easy shots at fundamentalist Christians. Indeed, virtually all of the jokes that aren't based on some reference to pop culture seem to involve the presumed inherent hilarity of creative multi-hyphenated vulgarities.

Still, Paul has some pretty funny stuff. Most of the best gags are reserved for the third act, including a few truly inspired visual moments. But Pegg and Frost are so immersed in their nostalgic movie-rapture that they don't seem to care that dropping a reference to the 1988 E.T. ripoff Mac and Me is more likely to inspire blank stares than laughter in a contemporary audience. There's nothing wrong with an enduring affection for the movies that made you fall in love with movies, provided you pay your respects in a way indicating that, over the subsequent 20 years, you've grown up a little.

Editor's note: This review originally said the government agent is played by Matthew Broderick. He is played by Jason Bateman.

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