Tag Archives: ricky gervais

Paul (2011)

28 Mar

Of all Britain’s recent comedic exports, Simon Pegg is the least likely to overstay his welcome, possessing a charm and likeability missing from Gervais, Brand, Cohen et al. Though the roles he has chosen since ‘Shaun of the Dead’ catapulted him to global prominence have been a mixed bag – not even he could invest the odious Toby Young with sympathy – his ability as a writer and versatility as a performer may well sustain him beyond the instant rush of celebrity he has enjoyed.

All of which makes ‘Paul’ such a disappointing experience. British Sci-Fi nerds Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost) travel to the nerd Mecca, Comic-Con, before setting off on a road trip taking in all the famous UFO hotspots. Graeme and Clive encounter Paul (voiced by Seth Rogan), an alien who has escaped from the military base where he was being held. Paul is tracked by Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) under the instruction of The Big Man (Sigourney Weaver).

‘Paul’ peddles the usual insider references to the Spielberg/Lucas canon, the ironic veneration for the campy original ‘Star Trek’ series and the dissections of comic book culture found in countless Kevin Smith films. So, for example, the band in a biker bar plays the music from the Mos Eisley Cantina scene in ‘A New Hope’ and Paul claims to have been a creative consultant for ‘The X-Files’ and ‘E.T.’ – with a vocal cameo from Spielberg – which is fine if you’re aware of its significance, but means nothing to the casual viewer.

‘Paul’s’ concession to the mass audience is bucket loads of scatological humour, casual swearing and frequent allusions to the homoerotic nature of Graeme and Clive’s relationship. Pegg and Frost’s screenplay actively courts the Apatow audience, expunging much of the uniquely British flavour that made ‘Spaced’, ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Hot Fuzz’ so special. ‘Superbad’ director Greg Mottola fails to match the technical invention that Edgar Wright brought to previous Pegg/Frost vehicles – an integral part of what set them apart from anything else in the genre. The visual effects are passable, but would probably not pass muster in a less light-hearted context; it feels as though the actors are pitching their dialogue towards the space occupied by the alien, rather than interacting with it.

Pegg and Frost have the effortless chemistry that comes from years of friendship, but removed from their comfort zone, the dynamic fails to spark as it has in the past, their badinage dwarfed by the demands of the narrative and the scale of the project. Pegg and Frost play lovable man-children with their usual panache, but they seem trapped between the urge to joke around and the need to push the plot forwards, too in love with the subject matter to lampoon it with any conviction, embracing the archetypes rather than subverting them.

Rogan doesn’t diverge from the shtick that already feels tired by virtue of its sheer ubiquity, approximating the stoner idioms of the ‘the Dude’ from ‘The Big Lebowski’ – if aliens are as crass and irritating as this, we can be thankful they have never made contact. Bateman struggles to convey an air of menace, which makes sense by the end but hampers the film’s dramatic momentum. Elsewhere, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio are Bateman’s bumbling sidekicks, while Kristen Wiig is the lightning rod for the film’s rationalist message as the Creationist who is enlightened by Paul and becomes Pegg’s love interest – listening to her learning profanity gets very boring very quickly.

The premise of ‘Paul’ was devised by Pegg and Frost on the set of ‘Shaun of the Dead’ as a means of alleviating boredom between takes, and its freeform origins are apparent on the screen; the narrative engine sputters along, locking into a pattern of pursuit and evasion, a set of ideas held together by the slenderest of threads, fleshed out by in-jokes referring to everything from ‘Mac and Me’ to ‘Capturing the Friedmans’. With the commercial failure of ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’, the time has come for the Wright/Pegg/Frost triumvirate to reunite and complete their ‘Cornetto Trilogy’.

ALF, 2011


Extract (2009)

17 Feb

‘Extract’ is the latest offering from Mike Judge, the brains behind ‘Beavis and Butt-head’ and ‘King of the Hill’. Though his animated output lacks the populist punch of ‘The Simpsons’ or the outrage-baiting crudity of ‘South Park’, its slyly subversive social satire was laced with a mordant, misanthropic sting in its transition to the big screen. His debut live action feature ‘Office Space’ (1999) is a scalpel-sharp dissection of the modern workplace, perfectly capturing the horror of disparate personalities trapped together before Ricky Gervais was hailed as a genius for doing so. His follow-up, ‘Idiocracy’ (2006), is an excoriating attack on our rapidly diminishing attention spans, taking place in a future where the average IQ has plummeted to the point that an average man from the past is the smartest man alive. ‘Extract’ continues in the same uncomfortably funny vein, forcing us to recognize flaws in ourselves.

Joel (Jason Bateman) is the owner of a factory manufacturing extract flavourings. Though seemingly secure, his life is slowly unravelling around him – his marriage is faltering and his business is put at risk when one of his employees, Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), loses a testicle in a freak accident. Step is urged to sue by Cindy (Mila Kunis), a pretty grifter who takes a job at the factory in order to scam Step out if his settlement. Under the influence of a Ketamine pill given to him by his drug-addled friend, Dean (Ben Affleck), Joel is talked into a ploy whereby he gets his wife, Suzie (Kristen Wiig), to cheat on him with a gigolo so he can pursue Cindy ‘guilt-free’. This decision sets in motion a chaotic chain of events that throws everything off kilter and threatens to destroy everything Joel has spent his life building.

Bateman brings the same uptight exasperation that made him so compelling in ‘Arrested Development’, desperately trying to hold everything together as complications are flung at him. Affleck’s performance harkens back to the time when he was an integral part of Kevin Smith’s comic repertory in the likes of ‘Chasing Amy’ and ‘Dogma’, submerging himself beneath a beard and a ridiculous wig as a self-proclaimed ‘entrepreneur and spiritualist’. Wiig is a talented comic actress, but she is underutilized as Joel’s wife. She is lumbered with a paltry role lacking in definition, used in a reactive capacity in all but a few key scenes. Kunis is perfectly cast as someone who uses their sexuality to get what they want; she is a plausible femme fatale, toying with the emotions of her marks, manipulating the guileless dupes who stand in her way. ‘Extract’ is bolstered by a number of entertaining supporting performances – the ever-reliable J.K. Simmons as Joel’s embittered assistant, David Koechner as Joel’s tiresome, over-familiar neighbour, Beth Grant in typically shrill form as a bigoted employee, Dustin Milligan as the dim-witted gigolo, and rock legend Gene Simmons as a slimy, obnoxious personal injury lawyer.

‘Extract’ shares much with Judge’s other work in its depiction of people trapped by circumstance; be it menial tedium, domestic drudgery, small-town values or their own innate stupidity. Judge highlights the absurdities of corporate culture, laying bare the petty grievances, casual cruelties, pointless rivalries and thwarted ambitions that characterise the working environment. The film’s aesthetic highlights this uninspiring, homogenous landscape; a garishly lit sprawl of fast food franchises and chain bars that inspires only ennui. Judge posits that we are all slaves to convention and status, reserving equal scorn for the cod-spirituality of drug users, the faux-authenticity of suburban rockers and those who coast on their looks. Rednecks and poseurs, alternative or mainstream, Judge treats everyone with equal disdain, all of them being symptoms of a culture swimming in convenience and drowning in abundance. ‘Extract’ compensates for being short on laughs by presenting richly observed characters struggling with a culture that makes them feel small, detached, expendable and powerless. Too dark to find success with a mass audience, ‘Extract’ cements Judge’s pedigree for producing black, insightful comedy that refuses to pander to its audience.

Can you see the join?