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Steven Spielberg got the joke. And he liked it well enough to become a part of it. The celebrated director has a fleeting cameo (of sorts) in the new sci-fi spoof Paul. You can easily miss it as it quickly and obscurely comes and goes, but it’s typical of the amiably whimsical, spoofy humor of Paul, and it entails a little insider joke on Spielberg that he must have wanted to help deliver.

More broadly, Paul is a good-natured sendup of two of Spielberg’s signature movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extraterrestrial, as a lot of people who haven’t yet seen it must already know from the picture’s PR. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (together responsible for Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) wrote it and star as a pair of British sci-fi-infatuated nerds, Graeme and Clive. On the way to Las Vegas for a Comic Con, they take off in an RV for a trip to hallowed Southwestern UFO-impacted sites. En route, they become involved in assisting the eponymous Paul, E.T.-like (very like and part of the joke), who is on the lam from a US military base where he’s been held since 1947. Paul, a CGI creation voiced by Seth Rogan, is a sort of post-hipster stoner dude with a foully expressive vocabulary and an underlying optimistic competence.

The movie, directed by Gret Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland), is a comic buddy-flick-cum-road-trip movie plus a chase flick, embroidered by friendly digs at science fiction, and some mildly amused takes on alien-invasion freaks, comic book aficionados, and religious fundamentalists (toned down a little in production).

This sounds like a lot, but Paul’s chief accomplishment may just be more or less efficiently processing it all. Mottola seems to have been only infrequently strained. He has a nice sense of timing in the gags and business. Pegg and Frost, who cut their teeth as stars of British television comedy, are old hands at working together. They come across a bit like Laurel and Hardy, a bit more like Eric Morecambe and Ernest Wise, whose Britcom music hall act was aired years ago on public TV. Mostly, they have their own unforced, amicably humorous style.

The supporting cast is no small asset, particularly Kristen Wiig as a religiously cowed woman who gets swept up in the trio’s escape across the desert and who suddenly develops erotic and extreme-vocabulary liberation, thanks to Paul. Jason Bateman, as a very square-jawed, grim-visaged federal agent tailing the escaping quartet, possibly has the best role of his movie career (which always hasn’t been a happy experience).

Paul isn’t especially rich or elevated in its comic invention, but it has an agreeably loose vibe. It’s the funniest sci-fi comedy since The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and if it isn’t up to that one’s level, it’s a better comedic investment in time and dollars than you’re currently going to find elsewhere.

george sax

Watch the trailer for Paul

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