The Dinner: Burger, shake, and fries at Dick's (111 N.E. 45th St.).
Double Negative/Universal Pictures Pegg (at right) attempts to give Paul some driving lessons.
The Screenplate: Those two English guys who previously did Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz sure love our American genre movies. Zombies, cop flicks, and now sci-fi. And not just science fiction in general, which can come in hard, violent, and Philip K. Dick flavors. They specifically love the sentimental '80s and '90s variety of American sci-fi, where aliens are cuddly and scared and don't want to eat you. Beginning, of course, with E.T. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost aren't just students of our movie culture, they're cheeky re-enactors; they can't sort out the love from the lampoon. Much as they want to mock our overly broad cinematic gestures (Spielbergism, for shorthand), they want to cry at them, too.
Their double positioning is clear from the outset of Paul, which begins and ends at Comic-Con. The two play a pair of sci-fi dorks, one an author and the other an artist, who drive a rented RV on a Southwestern U.S. tour of Area 51 and its environs. And there, on their quintessentially American road trip, they meet someone even more foreign to America than they are: Paul, the wise, sarcastic extraterrestrial who smokes (tobacco and pot), loves junk food, and just wants to go home . . .Before you totally geek out, like our protagonists Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost), consider some of the practical problems in helping a short, skinny, green, bobble-headed alien (voiced by Seth Rogen) escape his angry federal captors. Paul can't drive; he's terrible at hiding (though he can turn invisible by holding his breath); he's a cuss-happy loudmouth; and he won't tell the English tourists exactly where they're driving him. (North, as it happens, toward a certain Wyoming national monument that genre enthusiasts will easily guess.)
What does Paul like to do on this three-geek road trip? Bust the Englishmen's balls, diss their driving, marvel at their innocence, brief them on his accomplishments since crash-landing on Earth in 1947 (Paul appears to be very sage and very old), get stoned, drink beer, dance to '70s album rock, resuscitate dead birds, and eat lots of junk food. Paul is not a picky eater. At one mini-mart, he tells his drivers to get him Reese's Pieces (yup, just like in . . . well, you know the answer.)
So if you were the lucky sci-fi geek who found Paul, say, in the U District (close to the Metro), where would you take him to eat? The answer lies just across I-5: Dick's on 45th. The local chain, founded in 1954, is one of the few surviving Northwest artifacts of the postwar Americana that Graeme and Clive so avidly seek on their vacation. It's born of the same Cold War, eat-in-your-car convenience that marked our nation's great surge of prosperity and paranoia: Who has time for fancy chow when we're fighting the Commies?
And just as sci-fi artists Graeme and Clive seem locked in a certain innocent past (both of them quite inexperienced with girls), Dick's is as reassuring as any roadside joint you'd find on Route 66 (the show or the highway). And the prices haven't changed much either: A Deluxe, shake, and fries will run you six bucks and tax. Portions are small, but who wants to eat a mountain of grease? (Well, who apart from Paul?) It's not a place where adults generally eat. But then, Graeme, Clive, and Paul--whatever his age--are hardly adults.
Neither is the very affable movie Paul meant for viewers far beyond the Comic-Con fanboy demo. Those who laugh most frequently at the constant quoting and referencing of other sci-fi movies and TV shows also presumably have the same bookcases filled with the DVDs that Graeme and Clive watch over and over again. Even Paul occasionally grows impatient with their sheer dork-dom, calling them "You psychotic nerds." But the movie is really a three-way bromance. The two earthlings vow to help Paul get to his destination; the trio bonds en route, and the movie would only rate a C-plus if it weren't for a mid-film destabilizing factor that raises the grade to B-plus: An actual woman joins the voyage.
That would be Kristen Wiig as the one-eyed fundamentalist Ruth, bullied by her Bible-thumping father and unhappily running their RV campground. Think back to Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, and can you remember a single female character? Right. That was their limitation. Ruth is a different story, delivered from dogma by Paul's mind-meld, which imparts all of his celestial knowledge (including evolution) in a palm to the forehead. Suddenly Ruth is free to randomly curse ("Ain't that a bag of tits?"), kiss, and consider the possibility of fornication.
Where Graeme and Clive are overgrown boys, and Paul their new mentor, Ruth is a rube suddenly awakened to the world and all its wonderment. Even Dick's would taste delicious to her, once. The three dudes in Paul would happily eat there for the rest of their lives. But loopy, liberated Ruth is the only character you'd want to follow to other movies and other restaurants.