The Watch combines modern frat-boy comedy with alien invasion and features the familiar talents of Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill. Is The Watch… worth a watch? Major Spoilers knows.
Directed by: Akiva Schaffer
Screenplay by: Jared Stern, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Starring: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Rosemarie Dewitt
Edited by: Dean Zimmerman
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Produced by: Shawn Levy
WHAT WAS THE LAST GREAT SCI-FI COMEDY?
Set in a fictional Ohio suburb, The Watch focuses on Evan Trautwig, a married, small-town Costco manager whose only pride comes from his large circle of acquaintances amassed through his peculiar obsession with starting clubs. After one of his employees is murdered, Trautwig forms a neighborhood watch after he quickly realizes that the local police are most likely idiots. Only the neighborhood misfits join up – a father obsessed with his daughter’s virginity, an insane reject from the local police force, and an awkward, sex-obsessed loner. Inexperienced though they may be, the watch quickly discovers that their small town is at the center of a covert alien invasion, and that they may be the only ones standing between the extraterrestrials and world-domination. Billed as a comedy, The Watch comes from the director of Hot Rod and the writers of Superbad and The Green Hornet, and the sensibilities are similar to anyone who is familiar with those films. The jokes are the usual blend of locker room humor and gross-out shenanigans, with an alien invasion bent for a little flavor. There’s also some attempted drama regarding Trautwig and his wife’s relationship, but that element is half-hearted and falls entirely flat.
I had some hopes for this film. Akiva Schaffer is a member of the Lonely Island troupe responsible for the amusing Saturday Night Live Digital Shorts (the group’s cameo in the film is one of the high points), and his directorial debut Hot Rod was much better than it had any right to be. Hot Rod was a film that understood it helps to be smart to make stupid comedy, and had a gleeful, anarchic sensibility with many unexpected humorous moments. Similarly, Rogen and Goldberg’s script for Superbad crackled with one-liners and ridiculous situations. The Watch lacks the energy of those films, and takes none of the risks. Ultimately, a comedy is judged by how fast and how well it delivers its jokes. And The Watch is neither particularly fast nor particularly hilarious. It delivers a regular rate of jokes with workmanlike precision, but the script produces too many stretches of time where nothing funny is happening on screen and never takes any risks to create anything unexpected. The alien invasion provides some fun creature effects, but isn’t fully realized enough to really make the sci-fi elements matter. The alien plot is generic to the extreme, with the writers never using the science fiction trappings to generate anything meaningful, aside from one shaggy dog, mildly amusing dick joke.
Stiller seems to have a few stock characters he repeatedly returns to as an actor; a luckless, put-upon schmoe (as in There’s Something About Mary or Meet The Parents), a raving lunatic (Tropic Thunder, Dodge Ball), or a neurotic martinet (Along Came Polly, Starsky & Hutch). The Watch puts Stiller’s Trautwig firmly in the latter role, positioning him as the straight man opposite the wacky and weird Vaughn, Hill and Ayoade. In many ways, this is the film’s fatal weakness. His character drains the energy out of so many scenes. A good straight man is key to elevating comedy, but Trautwig is such a whiny downer that the character drastically reins in the manic humor provided by Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill. Those two are familiar faces to anyone watching mainstream American comedies, and both deliver as expected. Vaughn plays his usual motor-mouthed role and his pairing with a wonderfully sociopathic Hill delivers the best jokes the movie has to offer. It would’ve been a better film if their two characters were allowed to just run off on whatever idiot adventures they could find. Ayoade is a powerhouse of British comedy, with stand-out roles in The IT Crowd and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (which badly requires a US DVD release). He plays the awkward outsider capably, but the script doesn’t give him much to work with outside the usual “horny nerd” clichés. This was one of the more disappointing aspects of the film, since Ayoade is a smart, effective comedian and I hoped that he could bring something new to the usual sort of Frat Pack film. Unfortunately, his role is just as much business as usual as everything else in this film. Happily, Will Forte and R. Lee Ermey make the most out of a minor role and glorified cameo respectively, with the former particularly shining as an engagingly malevolent small-town cop.
WATCH THE WATCH. OR DON’T, IT DOESN’T REALLY MATTER
As it is, The Watch is a perfectly inoffensive delivery vehicle for mildly offensive dick jokes grafted onto a rote alien invasion subplot. It delivers the expected laughs – Vince Vaughn spews off animated insults while Hill does something amusingly cruel – but not efficiently enough to recommend paying the full price for viewing. This film is recommended for a lazy Sunday afternoon on cable or a matinee viewing and not much else. The Watch rates a middling two and a half out of five stars. Feel free to check it out, but certainly do not feel like you have to.