Yet another one of those things that must have looked better on paper, the premise of The Watch probably should have remained an idea being spit-balled amongst screenwriters in the coffee break room. In this case, the writers are Jared Stern, Evan Goldberg and actor Seth Rogen, with the latter two having a history of going to the well too many times after penning films like Superbad, Pineapple Express and The Green Hornet. The quality of their screenplays have been in decline for quite some time now and although The Watch isn’t a complete waste of time, it does feel like yet another missed opportunity.
To be fair, all the blame can’t be placed on those behind the screenplay. Stern, Goldberg and Rogen may have penned The Watch, but Akiva Schaffer directs a cast that includes Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, two big box-office draws who have a history of repeating themselves. Schaffer’s debut feature, Hot Rod was a box-office dud, but his real forte is directing SNL digital shorts featuring Andy Samberg and “The Lonely Island”. That’s what The Watch feels like at times; a series of shorts strung together, some that work and some that don’t. Stiller and Vaughn don’t really seem to care through most of the proceedings since they can go through the motions and laugh all the way to the bank in the process. Occasionally, their antics provide a few laughs, but those moments are few and far between.
As the manager of a local Costco in suburban Ohio, Stiller plays Evan, another one of those characters that takes his life a bit too seriously. He’s one of those well-organized individuals who uses their free time to start neighborhood clubs because basically he has no real life. Even his wife (Rosemarie Dewitt) whose suffering from baby fever, finds she has to essentially make an appointment to have sex. When the store’s night guard (Joseph A. Nunez) is brutally murdered one night and found mysteriously torn to pieces, Stiller takes it upon himself to start yet another club, “The Neighborhood Watch”.
Evan’s efforts to find the murderer are laughed at and frowned upon by the local police Sergeant (a hilarious, but underused Will Forte), but in time a few neighbors decide to join his group. As Bob, one can’t deny that Vaughn has perfected his obnoxious shtick, but his best moments don’t involve Evan and friends, but rather his teenage daughter, whose virginity he guards like a watch dog. With one smart mouth already a member of the group, Jonah Hill tries a little something different as Franklin, a young man with emotional problems still sore that he didn’t qualify to join the Police department. Hill manages to step out from behind the large shadows cast by Stiller and Vaughn on more than one occasion, playing Franklin straight and rather mild-mannered. It makes his occasional emotional outbursts more effective. Then there’s British native Richard Ayoade as Jamarcus, a recently relocated neighbor who has joined the Watch in an effort to complete a fantasy which involves a lonely Asian housewife. Don’t ask.
The quartet have absolutely no idea what they are doing, breaking each of Evan’s established rules one by one during a serious of stakeouts and incidents, one of which involves a shotgun wielding R. Lee Ermey, pissed that they’ve trespassed on his property. Comedy begins to mesh with the sci-fi genre, when the group discovers a mysterious metallic orb that may be of extra-terrestrial origin. They’re too clueless to initially figure that out, despite the fact that the orb emits a death ray that disintegrates just about anything. But when more victims turn up ripped to pieces and strange looking goo starts to pop up throughout the neighborhood, “who you gonna call”? Not the Watch, that’s for sure.
There are bits in The Watch that are truly hilarious, but if you piece those bits together, they don’t make up a whole or even something strong enough to support a story that ultimately crumbles. The interaction and banter between the four leads often takes us on a tangent away from the main story, but are surprisingly more interesting to listen to. Vaughn has one moment where he obsesses over the complexity of a set of Russian nesting dolls in Stiller’s home that grows increasingly humorous because it starts to looks like the actor is breaking character and even amusing himself. I have a hunch that a feature length gag reel from this production would be more entertaining than the actual film itself.
The alien invasion plot of The Watch is pretty stupid and boring. Seeing the group violate and take photographs with the body of what they assume to be a dead alien isn’t as funny as listening to Vaughn’s complex explanation of why he chose the logo for the uniforms they wear or a minor subplot involving Billy Crudup as a creepy neighbor. Crudup just appears out of nowhere, briefly livening up the proceedings with his weirdness, accompanied by the suggestion that he may be an E.T. Unfortunately, his stuff is sidelined and never fully explored in favor of another dumb subplot and attempt at drama where Stiller is afraid to tell DeWitt that he can’t get her pregnant because he’s shooting blanks. The idea of aliens skinning their victims and then wearing it to infiltrate suburbia isn’t really explored as it should be either and could have provided much needed elements of creepiness or paranoia. Even the aliens, with their uninspired bipedal insect design, aren’t particularly interesting when finally revealed because the antagonists of the story have no real face. Men in Black comes to mind where Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith chased a nemesis that was basically a giant cockroach, yet for most of that film, we identified Vincent Donofrio as the enemy.
Just when this film turns stale, there are a few comedic moments here and there that grab your attention, but are never strong enough to hold it. Stiller looks very old and tired in this film, even bored, wearing an expression that suggests he’d rather be writing and directing something better for himself to star in. Vaughn keeps his head above water with his antics, but only for so long and though it’s nice to see Hill make an attempt to be a little different, his muted performance does suggest he’s growing sleepy as the story slowly chugs along. If Franklin were written more like the disturbed cop wannabe Rogen played in Observe and Report, it could have elevated the material and Hill would no doubt have gone to town fleshing out the character. Ayoade, basically an unknown, to American audiences at least, has his work cut out for him working alongside such familiar faces. Unfortunately, Jamarcus is one of those characters whose sole purpose is to react to what the more prominent characters are doing. The leads all riff off one another quite well, but even they can’t save a screenplay that was D.O.A. before a frame was even shot.