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'Paul' hits, misses 

'PAUL': Kristen Wiig, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg star.
  • 'PAUL': Kristen Wiig, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg star.

If you caught the trailer for "Paul," you glimpsed the entire plot. A couple of geeky Limeys hit up Comic-Con and then road trip around the UFO tourist traps in the American Southwest. Along the way, they run across an actual alien — slender neck, bulbous noggin, eyes like rugby balls — bent on escaping from the U.S. government, black-suited agents of which are in pursuit. And since the movie stars co-writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the duo from buddy comedies "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz," you know you're going to bust a gut.

Well, "Paul" isn't their finest. It's amusing. It's visually convincing. It belongs in the stoner pantheon, with some fine weed jokes. But it doesn't rise to the level of classic. Perhaps it's because Pegg forfeits most of the best material to Paul, voiced admirably by Seth Rogan playing the same droll stoner he always does. Stuffed into the alien form of Paul, Rogan controls the tone of the whole enterprise, and he has never been better. Still, "Paul" needs more Pegg. The best laugh of the entire movie arrives, surprisingly, via one impeccably timed facial expression by Pegg. He's too good to play so tamely here.

To catch you up: Paul has been stranded on Earth since 1947, when he crash-landed in Wyoming and was promptly scooped by the feds. Under their care, he explains, he lived a fairly comfortable if solitary existence, feeding them science facts and socializing amicably. It's when he outlives his usefulness that he knows he has to get the hell off Earth. When he runs into the Brits and their RV, they race to stay one step ahead of the dogged Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman). Along the way they accidentally ensnare a half-blind RV park attendant named Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig). Greg Mottola ("Adventureland," "Superbad") directs.

As the plot would suggest, the meta-nerdish pop references swarm in this one, exactly as you'd hope. Just brush up on "Star Wars," "Star Trek," "Aliens," "Men in Black," "Battlestar Galactica," "Titanic," "X-Files," "E.T.," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Predator," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Mork and Mindy," "Flash Gordon," "Mac and Me," "Lord of the Rings," and "The Blues Brothers" to name but several, with a hat tip to "Total Recall" for grins. (The casting mirrors this cultural churn: The film is peppered with veterans of "Arrested Development," "Saturday Night Live" and "The State.") Part of this cultural cannibalism follows one of the most pleasing notions in "Paul," the idea that the government drip-fed his (seemingly stereotypical) image to the culture at large, to prepare us in case news of him ever leaked. Meanwhile Paul was allowed to work as a creative consultant to Hollywood on the side.

It's a Mobius strip of a premise: "Paul" doesn't rip off half a century of science fiction because everything else has in fact derived from Paul. But after 104 minutes laughing at the idea of Comic-Con types besotted by sheer dorkiness, a grim truth dawns. As Admiral Ackbar would say, it's a trap. The more of "Paul" you get, the more you are, in fact, the butt of the joke.

Mostly this is harmless good fun. There are a couple of passages, though, that are pretty rough on fundamentalist Christians, and unfortunately for any real meeting of minds, they're not particularly brave. If you're the sort who gets kicks watching primordial religion take its shots, well, you'll get a chuckle out of the Bible-bleating Ms. Buggs' two-minute conversion to agnostic heathen. But it's meaner (and less funny) than necessary. As with so much in "Paul," it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. You just wish it had reached a bit higher.

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