(In theatres, March 2011) The mainstreaming of geek culture over the past decade has meant as many mainstream products aimed at the geek demographics than geek attitudes adopted into the mainstream. So that’s how we end up with Paul, a broadly-accessible comedy about two geeks encountering an alien while road-tripping through the US. Working without director Edgar Wright, comedy duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost pair up with Greg Mottola to deliver a comedy that’s surprisingly less geeky than either Shaun of the Dead or even Hot Fuzz. Given the change in director, it’s no surprise if the cinematic grammar of the film is far more sedate, more conventional and not quite as bitingly funny: As one would expect, it’s closer to Mottola’s Adventureland than Wright’s Scott Pilgrim. But this different kind of atmosphere reflects the different nature of the plot: Featuring a charming and foul-mouthed gray alien, Paul works as an amiable road trip film, featuring two spacey heroes and one down-to-Earth alien who may be more human than the humans. Sometimes, though, the film missteps: some of the violence is surprising, the profanity and media references can be tiresome and the two lead actors are far too old to play such socially retarded characters: A comparison with the similarly-themed Fanboys shows that what’s charming at age 18 can feel just a bit sad at 40. Yet it’s hard to remain disappointed for long at a film that generally works as it should: if it’s not quite as funny, insightful or surprising as it could be, it’s still a generally good time at the movies, and a welcome comedic counterpoint to the slew of other alien-invasion films we’re seeing at the moment.
(On DVD, January 2011) As far as nostalgic coming-of-age comedies go, Adventureland is a bit better than the average. Featuring post-teenage characters trying to figure out life from the vantage point of awful summer jobs, this is a film that exceeds expectations while paying homage to familiar material. Set in 1987, the story centers around an intellectual college-age character forced to take a job at a local amusement park, where he meets radically different people and learns a few things about life outside school. To its credit, the film understands that characters and actors are the bedrock on which this kind of small-scale drama fails or succeeds, and the script does well in establishing people with whom we’d want to spend 90 minutes. The film is billed as a comedy, but it’s more affectionately romantic than overly funny –and it features a few plot points played differently than in other similar films. Seeing Adventureland in early 2011 is already a different experience than upon its release in 2009, if only because its leads actors have been in many high-profile projects since then. Jesse Eisenberg’s usual nebbish air works well here, whereas Kristen Stewart keeps playing “wounded” effectively and Ryan Reynolds is willing to let go of his winning persona to expose a deeply flawed character. Writer/director Greg Mottola manages to deliver a retro reminiscence that doesn’t feel of interest solely to people of that time: The result may not be a barrel of laughs, but it will leave you smiling. The DVD features a few extras, the best of which is a chatty commentary by director Mottola and star Eisenberg that starts out feeling meaningless, but eventually reveals a lot about the film’s autobiographical content, low-budget film-making and on-set shooting details.