‘The Watch’ Review
The zeitgeist giveth and the zeitgeist taketh away. Fortuitous timing lends some films the aura of relevance; bad timing lends others the stink of impropriety. Released last summer, ‘The Watch’ would have been just another Hollywood action comedy. Released this summer, it’s burdened by all sorts of unwanted and unintended cultural associations. It already endured a title change (from ‘Neighborhood Watch’) after the death of Trayvon Martin. Now this film -- which features a man exaggeratedly grieving for a murdered friend for comic effect and an antisocial dropout who stockpiles weapons -- opens a week after the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado. This poor movie can’t catch a break, which is a shame because it’s actually pretty funny.
It begins with the serenity and safety of suburban Glenview, Ohio, shattered by a mysterious killing. The security guard at the local Costco is killed on the job, and the store’s uptight manager Evan (Ben Stiller) takes his death particularly hard. Dismayed by the police department’s ineffectiveness (said ineffectiveness is portrayed with bumbling glee by Will Forte), he forms the Neighborhood Watch to solve the crime on his own.
Unfortunately, the only guys who answer the call of duty are goofballs: fast-talking Bob (Vince Vaughn), switchblade-wielding weirdo Franklin (Jonah Hill) and newly divorced Brit Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade) are all more interested in socializing than sleuthing. At Evan’s insistence they set up a stakeout and stumble onto something much bigger than an unsolved homicide: a full-scale alien invasion. Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? No, The Neighborhood Watch!
There’s no question that the film was shamelessly conceived in the ‘Ghostbusters’ mold: four slovenly buddies ill-equipped for heroism are thrust into the breach when the authorities refuse to believe their stories about a supernatural invasion happening right beneath everyone’s noses. But if ‘The Watch’ never approaches the sublime heights of Ivan Reitman’s iconic ‘80s classic, at least it never approaches the soul-crushing lows of Ivan Reitman’s own ‘Ghostbusters’-with-aliens knockoff ‘Evolution,’ either.
That’s probably because the screenplay by Jared Stern, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldeberg doesn’t get too bogged down in extraterrestrial insanity until the very end, and instead uses the Watch’s investigation as an excuse for free-form riffing, some of it very funny. Vaughn’s introduction to the group, which involves his extended discovery of the complex inner workings of a Russian nesting doll is a masterpiece of improvisation, and the whole ensemble’s reaction to their discovery of an alien corpse -- photo op! -- is another ingenious set-piece. Stiller is comparatively restrained, and while I vastly prefer outlandish, ‘Zoolander’-y Ben Stiller to the so-uptight-it-feels-like-the-role-was-originally-written-for-Steve-Carell Ben Stiller, he nonetheless plays an agreeable, if unmemorable, straight man.
“Straight man” is actually an appropriate turn of phrase in this case, thanks to the encyclopedia of male anxieties that fuel ‘The Watch’s' story and comedy. All of the heroes’ actions are motivated by impotence panic: Evan couldn’t save his co-worker and he can’t seem to impregnate his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt), so he forms the Neighborhood Watch as a solution (or at least a distraction) to both problems. Bob has a successful construction company and an impressive man-cave but he can’t get his teenage daughter to stop making out with sketchy guys and posting videos of their tongue duels on Facebook. Franklin failed the written, physical and mental exams for the police academy, and lives with his mother.
When you strip away the alien special effects (which are perfectly adequate, by the way), what you’re left with is basically an extended rumination on male inadequacy paranoia, plus dick jokes (most involving their members’ relative size, including a running gag about Magnum condoms). Evan and the boys of the Watch aren’t very good at voicing their feelings -- they’re even inadequate communicators -- but somewhere deep beneath the schtick and the alien battles (and dick jokes), this movie gets at something knowing, and even a little sad, about the fears and obsessions of the domesticated dude.
The accidental echoes of real-world events don’t provide too many distractions, though the scene where Hill’s character gleefully shows off his beloved stash of guns is sure to spark a few awkward silences. If anything turns off viewers, it will probably be the incessant and brazen Costco plugs that infiltrate the movie the way the aliens infiltrate Glenview. At a certain point, Costco’s constant appearances begin to feel less like product placement in a movie than movie placement in a product. Vince Vaughn even shills for a 3D TV, which would be really clever if ‘The Watch’ were actually in 3D.
Still, there are a lot of laughs in ‘The Watch,’ including a few big ones. At least on that front, it certainly measures up.
'The Watch' hits theaters Friday, July 27.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’