Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy vs. Paul
Director Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy is a “must-watch” for any fan of British humor or genre film. The Cornetto Trilogy, named for its inclusion of a different flavor of Cornetto ice cream in each film, is comprised of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. All three films are directed by Edgar Wright and star his friends Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
Whether you’re killing zombies with your cricket bat, horseback riding through your small village to confront a corrupt neighborhood watch, or sprinting to avoid extraterrestrial robots, you’re gambling with your life. You could make your way to The Winchester, The Crown, or The World’s End pubs to place your bets, or you could just sit at home and do it online. Just watch out for the young footballer outside your flat; he’s been turned into the living dead.
I’ve recently rewatched the trilogy, and I’ve also rewatched Paul, the American sci-fi comedy also starring Pegg and Frost. Paul is both funny and enjoyable, but it’s missing something that’s present in the British Trilogy. What is it? There will be some spoilers ahead so I recommend stopping here to watch the films first.
Edgar Wright’s Direction
The first and most obvious answer is the lack of Edgar Wright’s directorial touch. (This is the same reason why Marvel’s Ant-Man was good, but not quite as good as it could have been.) While he did serve as a producer on Paul, American Greg Mottola helmed the film.
I have nothing against Greg Mottola, in fact I’ve quite enjoyed his work on Superbad and Arrested Development. As an American, his comedy sensibilities are different, which I’ll explain a bit more in the next section. I think Mottola’s comedic focus is almost totally on the actors. While he often gets funny performances out of his actors, there are many more places to find comedy. Edgar Wright not only gets the best out of his actors, but he’s also great at finding good sight gags, callbacks, and pacing jokes. The Youtube channel Every Frame a Painting has made a fantastic video about how he does it.
Edgar Wright’s Screenwriting
The Cornetto trilogy was written by Pegg and Wright, while Paul was written by Pegg and Frost. While it’s hard to say exactly where Wright’s input ends and Pegg’s begins, I think two specific and related jokes can help. There’s a situation in both Shaun of the Dead and in Paul in which another character insinuates that Pegg and Frost are “more than friends.” In Shaun of the Dead, the David character hates Shaun and tries to rile him up by calling Ed his “boyfriend.” Shaun denies it, then immediately calls Ed “babe” when he brings him a beer. The immediate reversal of expectations is rapid-fire, tightly set up, and very funny. In Paul, there’s a situation in which the hotel only gave the two one bed, which leads the unnamed staff worker to believe that they’re a gay couple. It’s longer and more drawn out, and the comedy comes from how uncomfortable the characters are. It’s funny too, but it’s been done to death and it’s not as sharp as the gag from Shaun.
British vs. American Humor
The Cornetto Trilogy is very British, while Paul has a distinctly American flavor. How can a movie written by two Brits be called “American?” To explain, I first have to point out the difference between British and American humor. To do that, I’m going to steal Stephen Fry’s thesis: the difference comes down American optimism vs. British pessimism. The American comic hero is the wisecracker who is above his station (Grouch Marx, Jim Carrey), while the British comic hero is a dignified man made undignified by his circumstances (Blackadder, The Office). (Watch Stephen Fry’s video for a more detailed version.) The British/American divide affects the mood of the films in at least two ways: the protagonist and ending.
In the Cornetto movies, the protagonist is Simon Pegg’s character. He’s the British hero who seeks meaning and dignity. Life, through hardship and absurdity (whether it’s zombies, a cult, or robots), will not allow him to have either. The jokes in Shaun, Fuzz, and End are mostly at his expense. In Paul, the protagonist is the titular alien character. He’s an extraterrestrial, but he’s played by American Seth Rogen. Paul is a wisecracking hero (like Bugs Bunny or Woody Woodpecker) who is too good for his station in life. The plot of the movie only happens because Paul breaks out of his prison (his station in life), a typically American trope.
All three films in the Cornetto Trilogy have happy endings, but only in twisted, macabre ways. When you really think about it, the happy endings are actually downers, a very British trait. Paul has more of a formulaic Hollywood happy ending. Satisfying, yes, but not as clever or unexpected.
The Pegg/Frost Relationship
Though Paul‘s leads are the same as in the Cornetto Trilogy, the dynamic is different. In all three of the Cornetto movies, part of the film’s conflict is derived from the personal conflict between Frost and Pegg’s characters. In Shaun of the Dead, both Pegg’s Shaun and Frost’s Ed are twenty-something slackers, but Shaun is trying to improve his station while Ed seems happy to remain a “loser” forever. Similarly, in Hot Fuzz, Pegg’s Nicholas is a workaholic trying to make a difference while Frost’s Danny is blissfully ignorant and content with the status quo. The World’s End flips the dynamic and casts Pegg as the status quo loser who never grew up and Frost as the adult reluctant to get involved in juvenile nonsense. However, the dynamic is still there.
Paul is different. In Paul, Pegg and Frost are basically the same character. They’re both comic geeks on holiday who are reluctant to get involved in a plot involving an alien and a shady government op. Additionally, as the plot unfolds, Pegg’s Graeme has less to do with Frost’s Clive and more to do with the alien and with love interest Kristen Wiig. I’m not saying I want all movies to be exactly the same. However, Pegg and Frost have phenomenal chemistry and minimizing their interactions and their character arcs with each other seems like a lost opportunity.
If you’ve watched the Cornetto movies and you’re still craving more of the Wright/Pegg/Frost team, I highly recommend the television show Spaced. It aired from 1999-2001 on BBC and in many ways is a precursor to the Cornetto trilogy. For example, the Pegg/Frost friendship “opposites attract” dynamic is there, albeit in an understated way. A lot of the jokes and themes used in the movies are also present in the TV series in a more raw form. You can tell that the team is very talented and very funny, but they’re still finding their voices and honing their crafts. Last, several cast members from the three movies appear in Spaced, and it’s fun to identify them. It takes about five and a half hours to watch the trilogy, and it will take another five and half to watch Spaced, but for my money, it’s worth it.
Watch Paul, but watch it with slightly lowered expectations. It’s funny and thrilling, but it’s a good movie rather than a great one. According to this article, the team might be working on a new trilogy. I love the work these guys put out and am very excited to see what they create next.
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