Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are clever and endearing fellows. So one could easily expect the British duo of the zombie comedy "Shaun of the Dead" and the cop buddy riff "Hot Fuzz" to make their alien-meets-lads comedy "Paul" an out-of-this-world ride.
Alas, it is not to be. There are chuckles, even some deep guffaws, as sci-fi guys and comic book creators Clive Gollings and Graeme Wily hook up with a real alien by the name of, well, you know.
But in the end - as well as the middle and maybe even at the outset - "Paul" is more often a close encounter of the middling kind.
Seth Rogen provides the wisecracking voice of the green pint-size alien with the huge blue eyes. Paul crashed in America's desert Southwest in 1947. Since then, he's been the guest of a clandestine government operation.
One thing is clear from Rogen's turn: As Paul schooled his hosts, he also picked up the kind of crass habits that require an R rating.
Too often "Paul" - penned by Pegg and Frost - unfolds like one long string of inside jokes. Of course, a huge portion of the audience will be in on the gags. After all, pop culture's material on alien-human interaction is vast.
There's "Star Trek," ''Star Wars," plenty of nods to Steven Spielberg. That hardly begins the list. In a winking moment, a country-western band plays a familiar ditty in a bar full of rough characters.
Wide-eyed and chattering, Clive and Graeme begin their first jaunt to the U.S. at the fan-driven confab known as Comic-Con. France may always have the rarefied Cannes film festival in May. But one weekend in July belongs to the hoardes who descend on San Diego for the ever-growing annual event.
They come wearing costumes from their fave sci-fi, comic-book, fantasy sources. Those who don't may wear the look of the gobsmacked, just like Graeme and Clive.
"Paul" gets this fan-loving energy right. The blokes' awe and joy is sweet. Jeffrey Tambor's turn as beloved if dyspeptic sci-fi author Adam Shadowchild is amusing. And the movie is likely to be embraced by its base.
It's a promising enough preamble for Clive and Graeme's road trip to the nation's extraterrestrial hot spots. Directed by Greg Mottola, "Paul" loves its fanboys but can't quite maneuver its American folk stereotypes. The guys share a nice moment with Pat, the tart owner of a roadside diner that caters to ET-seeking pilgrims, played by Sue Sylvester, er Jane Lynch. They also have a too-telegraphed of a run-in with camo-sporting hayseeds.
Off a darkened stretch of two-lane black top, they meet Paul. "They come in peace and we go to pieces," quipped Clive earlier. Guess who's not ready for the role of rescuer?
Paul made a break for it, sensing his usefulness had come to an end. He's pursued by Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman). The determined G-man takes his orders from an unseen hardcase whose voice provides yet another pleased-with-itself nudge. Two feds with lesser skills (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) are also on the case.
The chase is on. A first contact will lead to deeper bonding. With Mottola at the helm and featuring Rogen, the movie comes with the requisite penis, fart and quasi-enlightened gay jokes.
It's familiar, not incandescent, comedy. Still the film takes its most ambitious - and tonally complicated - turn when the trio pull into the Pearly Gates RV Park, where Moses Buggs (John Carroll Lynch) and daughter Ruth live a righteous Christian life.
Forget encounters of the third kind. As played by Kristen Wiig, the cowed daughter of a fiery father is in need of some human contact, Ruth sports a T-shirt with the words "Evolve This!" on it and an image of Jesus facing off with Charles Darwin.
What would Jesus do, indeed.
"Paul," a Universal release, is rated R for language, including sexual references, and some drug use. Running time: 104 minutes.