With Spaced, the triumvirate of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright took the British nation by storm with their dilapidated, lo-fi take on cinematic conventions. Shaun Of The Dead was a superb debut feature, perfectly transplanting their quirky surrealism and humble love of genre movies onto the silver screen. But the Midas touch faded and their follow up, Hot Fuzz, was given a deservingly luke-warm reception. Now that Wright has forged his own path with Scott Pilgrim, Pegg and Frost have lost their world-beating confidence and have teamed up with their American equals (director Greg Mottola and actor Seth Rogan) in an attempt to bolster the allure of their latest release.
Unfortunately, there is no escaping the fact that the unique vision of their early work relied entirely on a humility and, frankly, poverty that they no longer possess. As their budgets race away from them, the scope of their stories is forced to give chase, and their fragile muse is left huffing and panting in the background. They want to honour the wonderfully kitsch and camp genre films of their youth, but all they manage to do these days is mimic them in a style more suited to the Wayans Brothers than the toast of 90’s British comedy.
The story begins and ends at the San Diego Convention Centre – where Comic-Con is in full swing – but while the characters disappear into the heat of the Nevada desert, the story never really leaves Comic-Con at all. After the giddy excitement of the Convention, Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) board their rented Winnebago and head out into the dusty Nevada dusk on Route 375 (Extraterrestrial Highway in geek nomenclature). But they quickly find themselves taking on another passenger… Paul. Paul crashed his spaceship into a farm near Area 51 back in the 50s, and has spent the last half century as a guest of the US secret intelligence services, helping everyone from scientists to film directors better understand extraterrestrial life forms. But in that space of time he has also become a rude, opinionated pothead with a rebellious streak.
Paul is desperate to escape from his hosts, who have decided that the only way to elicit more information from Paul is to cut him open. Graeme and Clive might be the last two people on Earth you would choose to help you evade capture – two dim-witted and painfully considerate Englishmen whose survival tactic since the onset of puberty has been to keep their heads below the parapet, buried deep in a comic book; but somehow this ragtag gang stay one step ahead of the screwball government agents (Hager and Bateman), darting across the desert in search of the spot where Paul’s family can rescue him.
Unfortunately there is less synergy to be found in the real life ‘ragtag gang’ of ‘Pegg/Frost’ and ‘Mottola/Rogen’. Each pairing finds moments of inspired humour – and Rogen comes closest to saving the film by channelling Dale from Pineapple Express into a CGI body suit – but there is no sense that the foursome have been collectively inspired to new heights. There is something faintly but obtrusively awkward about the interaction between the British leads and their American friends. Perhaps it is the physical limitations of the CGI alien against the live action humans; perhaps it is the yawning chasm between Rogen’s lackadaisical Californian drawl and Pegg and Frost’s glitchy neurotic Englishness; perhaps it is the fact that Mottola never saw the point in offering directorial advice to the two people who perh aps needed it most, on the basis that they wrote the film in the first place. Whatever the issue, the hiccups of comedy genius feel like hollow victories in a generally average film.