Talking Movies

December 22, 2011

Fanboys Vs Paul

At what point on the homage-o-meter does a film become so dependent for its laughs on just referencing other films that it simply ceases to exist in its own right?

I’m posing this question because I quite recently watched both Paul and Fanboys which are so referentially dependent that taking away that crutch of familiarity would cripple both. Paul would be less hobbled than Fanboys, because it’s operating on a higher level of comedic sureness, but the two films share the same basic DNA – nerds go on a road trip and things get very silly, with copious references to late 1970s/early 1980s pop culture, and Seth Rogen even appearing in both movies. There is obviously a huge difference in budgets between the two films, evident in looking at the star wattage of the casts. Sam Huntington, Jay Baruchel, Dan Fogler, and Kristen Bell for Fanboys weigh in substantially lighter than Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman, and Kristen Wiig for Paul. But that’s not that clinching, throwing money at bad jokes doesn’t make them funny.

Huntington is a gifted comedian who was a sublime Jimmy Olsen, Jay Baruchel is a reliable comedic presence, and Kristen Bell rarely gets to be as awesome in film as she was as Veronica Mars but she’s always got that charisma in reserve. Dan Fogler, however, sums up the problem with Fanboys. I’ve been mystified by Fogler’s rise because I don’t think he’s particularly funny in Balls of Fury, Good Luck Chuck, or Fanboys. Indeed the only time I’ve been impressed by him was in Love Happens where in a straighter role than usual he was quite good, even damn good in one serious scene. Fanboys sees him purvey his usual brand of crude, physical humour (constant dry humping) and he puts so much obvious energy and commitment into his performance you actually feel bad singling him out as a synecdoche of the film’s failings.

Fanboys is a film where the script constantly falls back on crudity and slapstick and asks its performers to mug like hell to hide the shortcomings of the material. It is intermittently amusing, but, with some exceptions, those laughs come from references to the Star Wars film, or from the efforts of cameoing stars whose presence are the only reason jokes work – think Carrie Fisher saying “I know” when someone says “I love you”, or William Shatner boasting “I’m William Shatner, I can score anything”. Even Rogen’s dual roles only work because of the sublime moment where as a Trekkie his beloved Kirk statue is destroyed and he cradles it shouting “KHAAAAAAAAAAN!” Take away the famous actors in tiny roles, and you’re left with a deeply suspect attempt to graft an emotionally manipulative arc about a dying friend’s last wishes onto raucous road trip comedy.

Paul by contrast has a far less weighty arc that works much better. It just wants Pegg to get a girlfriend and Frost to finish writing his novel as the transformative result of encounter with runaway alien Paul. It’s a funnier film than Fanboys because, though Paul’s dialogue is crude and the Kristen Wiig sub-plot is foul-mouthed and oddly mean-spirited, there is still more comedic gold left when you sift away the referential gags. Those references to Lucas, Spielberg, Zemeckis and Landis are hysterically funny, not least the moment when our heroes walk into the Roadhouse to find the band playing the Cantina music. But they are equalled by the absurdity of Jason Bateman’s character name, and the peerless Kristen Wiig’s crestfallen reaction to Pegg telling her she ‘should go’, meaning to visit the UK, but she takes it as meaning to just go away.

Paul is better than Fanboys but, while it’s hilarious to see Paul offering Spielberg advice on the phone on creating E.T., does Paul just feature too many referential gags versus original gags compared to the previous two Pegg/Frost movies directed, and crucially co-written, by Edgar Wright? Sigourney Weaver’s appearance saw me start a mental timer until the line ‘Get away from her you bitch!’ was referenced, and of course it was. Are Pegg and Frost compensating for the loss of Wright’s flair for visual absurdity by gripping ever more tightly their pop culture talismans? If, by some miracle, you could find a viewer entirely unfamiliar with cinema and pop culture from 1974 onwards would they still find Paul, and especially Fanboys, funny at all? Or would they merely look baffled and say ‘I don’t get it, what’s meant to be so funny about that line?’ Obviously though such an ideal viewer is impossible as Lucas and Spielberg colonised the popular imagination in a manner most film-makers can only dream of.

Still, it must be asked at what point doffing the cap to Lucas and Spielberg becomes a despairing admittance of defeat at ever conjuring up something equal to their magic?

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