Saturday, March 19, 2011
Wow, okay...this one is gonna hurt.
I'm only trying to be a little bit cooler than the crowd when I say that I saw Shaun of the Dead in theaters. I know, now who wants to touch me? It's weird that mere months after its release, we all had a handle on just how great a movie it is, and it provided a basis for the complete understanding we have of Edgar Wright (co-writer and director), Simon Pegg (co-writer and star), and Nick Frost (co-star). And by the time their next film, Hot Fuzz, hit theaters, they were rock stars. They did a nationwide tour of preview screenings to packed houses (I was there for that, too, naturally). Wright has since proven himself as a genius apart from his frequent collaborators with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and I was hardly alone in thinking Pegg and Frost would be just behind him with Paul.
Never mind the fact that they'd be teaming up with Greg Mottola, who after Superbad and Adventureland quickly became one of my favorite fresh filmmakers, a guy with a real grasp of the way comedy and drama naturally intersects in our lives. Add to that a stunning supporting cast of Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig (one of the few breakout talents of Saturday Night Live who might actually be a better actress than she is a sketch comedian; see Whip It for prime evidence of this), Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, John Carroll Lynch, and several others in smaller roles.
Expectations can be a funny thing, and movies are rarely the experience we hope them to be when we hope them to be anything, but mine would have had to have been abysmally low to consider this a success.
There are some aspects of interest, to be sure - for every half-dozen on-the-nose references to Star Wars, E.T., or Close Encounters, there are a few that'll fly just under your nose if you don't know it (a Capturing the Friedmans one is particularly splendid). In these instances we're reminded of the great television show Spaced, which Pegg co-wrote with Jessica Stevenson, and which more than any other show really knew how to use a pop culture reference to dramatic/comedic effect.
Better still is Pegg and Frost's vision of America, which borders on a parody of what Americans think Brits think of our country (alternately a subject of fascination and terror). Or it could just be what these guys think of America; who really knows?
Unfortunately, interesting references and thematic points of interest aside, the movie's just not a whole lot of fun to sit through. I forced a laugh out from time to time, but I can't think of a single joke that landed genuinely, and too often I sat silently wondering if many of the lines were in fact supposed to be jokes at all, and how can three guys involved with three of the funniest films of the past decade not recognize a bad joke? And who writes a character like Paul, who ends up being right about everything? And just where is the line between mocking fundamentalist Christianity and dismissing religion altogether? And has there ever been a successful comedy that dismisses atheism as swiftly as comedies have dismissed Christianity as of late? And could some key plot points - Paul can bring dead things back to life, but it takes a lot out of him and trying it on humans would be very dangerous - be set up any more obviously?
I guess what saddens me most about the film is it's just lazy. Lazily plotted, lazily acted - I'd kill for half the energy from Pegg and Frost that they showed in Wright's films, though Lord knows Hader's giving it his all - lazily funny, and lazily paced. It becomes weirdly intense, emotionally, or anyway it tries to be, very suddenly, and the deft touch that Mottola showed in his previous two films isn't present at all here, never mind his eye for aesthetics.
David at Battleship Pretension wrote that the film ends up far more disappointing than the average studio comedy purely for the talent on hand, and I'm afraid I have to agree with him. Much as we might say all films are judged in a vacuum and it's not really fair to hold up past work against current, it's also a disservice to past achievements to simply disregard it. Artists should be held to their own standards as well as ours, and I'm afraid Paul meets neither.