Film Review: The Watch

A talented cast shines brightly but can't carry the weight of this under-inspired sci-fi frolic.

The premise is so high-concept that it can be pitched in one sentence: Heartland suburban guys get the thrill ride of their lives when their nightly neighborhood patrol uncovers Ridley Scottish space invaders living among them. And it’s not hard to envision the action-comedy potential in the mishaps of a bunch of average Joes trying to defend their suburban turf against slimy monsters. Sounds like a can’t-miss formula, right? And yet The Watch manages to miss its marks at least twice as often as it hits them.

So what went wrong? Let’s start with the cast of characters, who, upon closer inspection, aren’t such ordinary guys after all. In fact, aside from straight man Ben Stiller’s Evan, the proud manager of the local Costco, and a compulsive organizer who starts up the neighborhood watch after a security guard is mysteriously murdered in his store, the rest of the crew displays some very obviously warped personalities. Which isn’t to say that you won’t recognize the types.

Vince Vaughn’s Bob (“with a B”) is a somewhat dimwitted construction foreman who practically lives in his fully appointed man-cave, and who does his best to turn every meeting and stakeout into a booze-infused bachelor party.

Jonah Hill’s Franklin is a knife-brandishing borderline psycho who still lives with his mother—which probably explains why he’s just dying to join a neighborhood watch group, where he’ll finally have an excuse to unleash his inner vigilante.

Richard Ayoade’s Jamarcus is a British-accented super-geek with an out-of-control Afro, who dreams of performing heroic deeds that will be sexually rewarded by grateful female neighbors.

All of these guys have their hilarious moments, mostly because four uniquely gifted comedic actors know how to put a sharp edge on some crudely written characters. But ultimately, they can’t do much with a script that eschews actual character development in favor of outrageous actions calculated to get an “Oh no they didn’t!” rise from the audience. Case in point: the discovery of an alien device that leads to an utterly juvenile exercise in joyfully blowing up stuff—from some farm equipment to a barn to a placidly unsuspecting cow. Awesome? These guys clearly think so. Non-braindead audience members may not agree.

That misfire is indicative of what’s wrong with The Watch, which consistently settles for broad, often raunchy laughs, most of which are unsurprising if not exactly predictable. It’s not so much that we’ve already seen what happens here before; it’s more that we’re too familiar with a sense of humor that almost feels computer-programmed. Too often we’re anticipating the payoff to a scene before it gets delivered. Too often we recognize character behavior that’s been scripted for its tried-and-true joke impact without regard to whether it even makes sense. In a good comedy, people keep us guessing because their emotions and motives are humanly complex. In this one, people only surprise us when they do something totally out of left field.

Given how low the filmmakers have set their sights, it doesn’t come as a shock that they make very little satirical use of their superficially idyllic, middle-American small-town milieu or the vaguely identified values that Evan and his friends are so overzealously protecting. Rest assured that when Evan’s beloved Costco goes up in flames during the obligatorily explosive finale, the moment is purely pyrotechnic. No symbolism intended.

Along with its limited imagination and questionable taste (including a passing, jokey hint of homophobia), The Watch also has the misfortune of bad timing. Not only is it an inadvertent reminder of the still hot-button Trayvon Martin case, but it also attempts to get a darkly comic moment out of a scene in which sociopath Franklin brings his friends to his mother’s house—where he unveils his small arsenal of automatic weapons. With the story of Aurora, Colorado still unfolding, this sight gag just doesn’t achieve the intended effect.

Of course, the pall of real-life tragedies isn’t this movie’s fault. Alas, it may be the main reason it is remembered.