POSTED ON MARCH 23, 2011:
Space and a Court Case
Paul adds laughs to the standard issue extraterrestrial, while The Lincoln Lawyer wins big
I've made little secret of my love of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as a comedy team, particularly when paired up with their partner-in-greatness, Edgar Wright, for gems like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and their early BBC comedy series Spaced. Those collaborations are important to keep in mind when considering Paul, since the "for us, by us" ethos of their nerd/movie culture comedies definitely carries over here, sans the visual kinetics and particular Brit-centricity of Wright's hand. While those collaborations enjoyed huge success in pure cult appeal it seems clear, though pleasingly unlikely, that the Laurel and Hardy-esque pair of Pegg and Frost has crossed over into the American mainstream -- no doubt helped by Comedy Central playing Shaun of the Dead every couple of days. Whatever. More power to 'em.
Pegg and Frost play Graeme and Clive, two British comic book geeks on vacation in the States to nerd out at the San Diego Comic-Con and embark on a road trip of UFO hot spots across the American Southwest, starting with Area 51. Steeped in sci-fi knowledge the pair are like kids in a candy store, meeting their favorite sci-fi writer, Adam Shadowchild (Jeffery Tambor), while generally being amiable strangers in a strange land filled with curiously odd Americans (who all assume they are gay).
Once on the road, though, the pair witnesses a bizarre one-car accident. Stopping to assist, they discover Paul (Seth Rogen), a standard issue extraterrestrial who's been on earth since 1947 and who has recently escaped from Area 51. Paul not only has a native's command of English but a scatological sense of humor to go with it and he manages to finagle a ride from the flabbergasted geeks despite their fear of anal probing.
As the trio learn more about each other, they form a strange friendship and commit to helping Paul get to an undisclosed location ("You'll know it when you see it") to be rescued by his interstellar brethren. Unfortunately, they are being doggedly pursued by Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) and a duo of feckless underlings (Tulsa-native Bill Hader and The State's Joe Lo Truglio) on behalf of "The Big Guy" who wants Paul captured or killed.
Despite a dearth of actual set comedic pieces as a comedy Paul hits its mark, due in large part to the chemistry of Pegg and Frost and, almost surprisingly, the digital Rogen. The script, by Pegg and Frost, is thick with geek movie references that approach the point of saturation but are ultimately much more accessible and even squeezes in a few neat ideas -- Paul is the unofficial writer of E.T. in a scene of 1980 phone conversation with Steven Spielberg (voiced by Steven Spielberg). He's also responsible for The X-Files, among other sci-fi staples. Pegg and Frost are Americanizing their particular nerdy comedic sensibilities, which makes Paul feel like a warm love letter directed at us, with just a little elbow nudge in the ribs. After the trio kidnaps a religious fundamentalist, RV park proprietor named Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), a hilarious exchange about Young Earth Science proved to be one of the funnier moments in the film.
Brit-centricity. While the comedy isnít relentless, what easily makes Paul the enjoyable ride it is are the performances from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Their friendship bleeds through into a great naturalism between the two and their timing is spot-on because of it.
But little shout-outs abound, in lines of dialogue -- Bateman shoots his radio while muttering "Boring conversation anyway..." -- or even more subtle nods like that hot three-breasted alien being a hat-tip to Total Recall or Paul's Predator-like ability to render himself invisible. The plot itself is a comedic re-working of John Carpenter's Starman, right down to the alien resurrection. There are far too many to references to count on the first viewing, even if you're looking.
Director Greg Mattola has a good visual sense, a subdued vibrancy that is a mark of his films. The way he directs the proceedings is also in line with the way he balanced comedy with character development in past works Superbad and Adventureland, though the lighthearted goofiness of Paul strikes closer to Superbad. A stoner alien and foul mouthed Brits (with an R-rating that most parents didn't notice, apparently) give Paul a somewhat different feel from what Mattola has done before and he even handles the technical aspects surprisingly well, considering the quality of the visual FX that bring Paul to life; which are top notch. He's growing as a filmmaker, though I would have loved to see how Paul would have looked in Edgar Wright's imaginative hands. Or not; otherwise Scott Pilgrim wouldn't exist and the world would be poorer.
While the comedy isn't relentless, what easily makes Paul the enjoyable ride it is are the performances from Pegg and Frost. Their friendship bleeds through into a great naturalism between the two and their timing is spot-on because of it. The characters themselves are sort of dialed down versions of their characters from Spaced (Clive is enamored samurai swords here instead of Mike's guns and Graeme is still a comic book illustrator who isn't quite so neurotic as Tim), but it matters little since Pegg and Frost's camaraderie is their selling point. They're just fun as hell to watch. Adding Rogen to the mix would seem to endanger that well-honed balance but, pleasingly, his voice work as Paul (combined with mo-cap FX that graft some of Rogen's facial quirks into the pixels) winds up feeling organic. In this case, three isn't a crowd.
They are supported by some fine and funny work from comic heavyweights Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio as well as a plethora of smaller roles from the likes of Jane Lynch, the always welcome Dave Koechner, John Carroll Lynch and couple of other cool cameos.
It's not a game changer, or even really a slam-dunk, but Paul is so good-natured that it can't help but win people over. And if you're a fan of Pegg and Frost, well, they're just icing on the cake.
The Lincoln Lawyer
Sometimes you can tell when a film has been well adapted from a novel, even if you've not read the source. It tends to feel like a novel; a certain amount of complexity whose presence is the mark of a dense, prosaic narrative whose level of predictability isn't based on what a film audience expects to happen next. The Lincoln Lawyer, based on the 16th book by popular crime writer Michael Connelly, enjoys what is apparently a good source to adapt into a film -- one that capitalizes on a courtroom-noir vibe, a twisting tale that doesn't wind up where you'd expect and a wonderful performance from Matthew McConaughey.
Mick Haller (McConaughey) is a semi-successful, wickedly smart defense attorney who represents mostly low-level drug criminals (one ably portrayed by Trace Adkins) as he operates out of the back of a Lincoln Town car driven by former client, and man about town, Earl (Laurence Mason). Haller gets punted a high profile case by his friend, Val (John Leguizamo) involving the son of a Beverly Hills real estate magnate, Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) who's been accused of the attempted rape and murder of a prostitute.
Court of Appeal. Matthew McConaughey is using every tool in his kit in The Lincoln Lawyer and makes Haller pop into comforting life while heís supported by adept turns from some fine character actors, which is highlighted by a typically riveting supporting performance from Josh Lucas as the prosecuting attorney.
Haller takes the case alongside the family lawyer, Cecil Dobbs (24's Bob Gunton) and quickly gets to work, assisted by his long-time right hand, Frank Levin (an amusing looking William H. Macy) to build a defense for the emphatically innocent rich kid.
Haller is something of a sleazy idealist. A hard drinking, fast talking crusader whose belief in the importance of peerless judicial defense reveals itself in his knowledge that justice is filtered through the prism of his confidence in a client's innocence. He'll pull strings for the guilty, regardless. Haller grapples with those realities amidst the scorn of a grizzled detective, Kurlen (Michael Paré) and his sexually amicable ex, prosecutor Margaret McPherson (Marisa Tomei) while he discovers similarities in his case involving a former client, Jesus (Michael Peña, being awesome for the second time in two weeks) that call his instincts into question.
The fun of The Lincoln Lawyer -- a relative term for any courtroom drama, since the crippling abundance of them on television batters the genre into the generic -- lies in the twists and turns of its story and the stellar lead performance by McConaughey, one that really reminds you what the guy is capable of when it's not Failure to Launch. McConaughey is using every tool in his kit and makes Haller pop into comforting life while he's supported by adept turns from some fine character actors, highlighted by a typically riveting supporting performance from Josh Lucas as the prosecuting attorney in Haller's case. The electromagnetic levels of gravity generated by those two alone make The Lincoln Lawyer worth watching. Solid turns by Ryan Phillippe, William Macy, Marisa Tomei, Michael Peña and John Leguizamo round out a strong ensemble cast.
Sophomore feature director Brad Furman, working from an adaptation by John Romano, stays visually grounded with a near-gritty look reminiscent of a Joe Carnahan (Narc) aesthetic that maintains a compositional subtlety while looking somewhat contemporary. It's L.A., one of the most overshot cities on Earth, yet Furman finds a way to make the familiarity of the surroundings feel different, while letting the performances shine in the, inevitably, familiar courtroom climax. It's not a slog, considering its relaxed pace, and its emphasis on character makes it easy to relinquish oneself to the ebb and flow of the narrative.
The Lincoln Lawyer is the kind of film that reflexively reminds everyone of movies based on John Grisham books, and they wouldn't be entirely wrong. But what it lacks is the operatically dramatic flourishes of (as much as I love them) guys like Sydney Pollack or Francis Ford Coppola -- whose Grisham adaptations The Firm and The Rainmaker are rife with Hollywood grandiosity. Furman replaces that with a straight-forward emphasis on character and story that strips The Lincoln Lawyer down to its most interesting essentials while making the procedural plot devices feel assuredly compelling. Bolstered by his ability to get great work from his actors, Furman has become a director to keep an eye on.
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