Instead, it’s just an excuse for dirty jokes and silly shenanigans.
Evan (Ben Stiller) loves his Ohio town more than any place on Earth. He loves it so much that he’s not only become a city councilman and manager of the local Costco, but he’s also founded the city’s Spanish and running clubs.
When one of Evan’s employees is murdered and the local detective (Will Forte) proves clueless, the civic-minded man organizes a neighborhood watch. But while Evan’s in it to find the killer, the three other watch members have different plans. Bob (Vince Vaughn) is just looking for a group of guys to hang out with while he escapes his family. Franklin (Jonah Hill) is still nursing a grudge for failing to make the police squad—after all, he only failed the “written, physical and mental tests.” And nerdy Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade) isn’t really sure why he joined, save for a few sexual fantasies.
None of the men really expect, however, that they’ll find themselves in the middle of an alien invasion.
“The Watch” opens with the promise of being an observant suburban satire. There’s some witty humor in Evan’s love of his town and the pride he takes in its diversity (“I don’t have a black friend yet,” he remarks. “But I’m in the market”). It also hints at tweaking the overly aggressive-yet-impotent American male persona, as the Watch vigorously hunts down perpetrators and is a bit too intense upon delivering a young delinquent to the police.
But director Akiva Schaffer (“Hot Rod”) is less interested in making a point and more in just letting the cast cut loose, tell crude jokes and occasionally get involved in some special effects-enhanced trouble.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. All four leads are very funny men and Stiller, Vaughn and Hill all play the roles that audiences have loved before. I suspect that people will enjoy them again here. Stiller plays dopey earnestness better than many and Hill’s still got a lot of goodwill after his turn in this year’s very funny “21 Jump Street”—he’s good here, milking a lot of humor out of Franklin’s intensity. Vaughn garners some chuckles as the manic dad looking to blow off some steam, but his overcaffeinated shtick goes a long way and grows tiring quickly. Ayoade’s bland geek is funny, but largely wasted, as are the considerable talents of Forte, who is dependably entertaining in a role that’s too small.
There’s some funny banter among the four and the film has a surprisingly engaging theme about male bonding, particularly in a well-played scene between Stiller and Vaughn where the movie quiets down and actually treats Bob and Evan as characters. There’s also a raucous energy to a scene where the four pose for pictures with what they believe is a deceased alien.
But just as the film finds something original and funny, it undercuts it with a crude joke or raunchy site gag. Some of these are funny in and of themselves, but for the most part the material just feels lazy—the film never really knows what to do with Billy Crudup, whose bizarre performance as a creepy neighbor could have been memorable if the film cared enough to develop it. Schaffer can’t even find the energy to make his big R-rated set piece—a scene at a basement orgy—energetic, funny or shocking, and he utterly wastes R. Lee Ermy in a bit part.
Some of the alien sequences are fun, particularly when Schaffer lets loose and plays with action movie conventions. But the film could have been funny without the entire invasion subplot and the extraterrestrials are never developed enough to be memorable, scary or funny. They’re just kind of there as a plot piece.
The film also suffers from trying to cram too many threads into its meandering story. Subplots like Bob’s concern for his teenage daughter’s purity or Evan’s struggle to tell his wife (a wasted Rosemary DeWitt) he’s impotent feel slight and are wrapped up quickly as the movie rushes to its obligatory climax. And for a movie about neighborhood watches and community pride, “The Watch” never really develops the small Ohio town as it promises in the beginning. A good deal of humor could be found in mining the behavior and quirks of the city, but film insistently sticks to its formula.
And it’s not a horrible formula. I laughed several times during “The Watch,” particularly out of fondness for the actors. The movie’s not particularly good and there are many wasted opportunities, but it’s never boring. It’s a likable, sporadically funny comedy that I suspect I’ll forget all about until I pass it by on cable a few years down the road. And I’ll probably watch it then, chuckle a little and forget about it all over again.