A nightwatchman gets skinned alive and obliterated at a Costco in a suburban town and store manager Evan (Ben Stiller) assembles a neighborhood watch group to find his co-worker’s killer in The Watch, a science-fiction/comedy which, in fits and starts, is an amusing movie. Proudly crude and vulgar, The Watch tells an aliens-attacking-Earth story with an underlying mix of subplots which take the film down tangential paths that never truly lead anywhere. The film lacks a focal point, unless that focal point is to simply throw a little graphic violence, graphic humor, and star power at the wall and see what sticks. And the problem is, little really does.
Seeing Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade riff with one another has intermittent hilarity, but ultimately The Watch suffers mightily from its poorly constructed story which incorporates way, way too much. As a result, the screenplay by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Jared Stern delivers moments too scattershot to mean anything once the film, or in some instances the scene, comes to an end.
Once Evan’s co-worker is decimated, we meet the three individuals who respond to Evan’s pleas for assistance when the local police refuse to do much of anything. Bob (Vince Vaughn) is married, the father of a teenage daughter (Erin Moriarty) he feels is entrenched in a culture of drugs, partying, and rebellion. Franklin (Jonah Hill) is a young vagabond who has still not recovered psychologically from being rejected by the police academy, and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade) is a recently divorced guy who seemingly stumbles into the group looking for something to do. While Evan was hoping for lots more, he becomes the leader of this motley crew, determined to root out crime in their neighborhood, but also find who, or what, is terrorizing their little town of Glenview, U.S.A.
While it is readily apparent that improvisation was the expectation from director Akiva Schaffer (Hot Rod), the mandate from Schaffer was apparently to have these actors also just do what they normally do. As a result, Ben Stiller plays the serious-tinged straight man, Vince Vaughn instantly becomes the brash, fast-talking, sarcastic soul we see in every time he is in a comedy, Jonah Hill is yet again slightly off-center, mumbling pithy and well-timed one-liners under his breath, and Richard Ayoade just delivers goofy, off-the-wall line readings, appearing effortlessly funny. Acknowledging Ayoade is a new face and exempt from the same criticisms, if you love seeing these actors trot out their standard movie role characters, then you will likely find The Watch hilarious and wonderful. For me, this was quite a letdown.
Rare is the film that finds actors appearing to both be trying too hard and not trying at all. Throughout The Watch, I simply could not tell if Stiller, Vaughn, and Hill were just going through the motions, or trying really hard to be funny. For guidance, they should have simply followed the hilarious Richard Ayoade’s lead because his is the only performance which feels comfortable and natural.
Director Akiva Schaffer is likely best known as one-third of The Lonely Island, the comedy trio who, along with Jorma Taccone and Andy Samberg, achieved fame for their Saturday Night Live Digital Short segments and their Grammy and Emmy-nominated comedy recordings. Frustratingly, Schaffer never seems to stay focused on anything for any significant time, a characteristic which may allow for his Digital Short segments to click and whirl effectively for 2-4 minutes on television, but falls desperately short on the big screen.
Of course, he gets no help from the screenplay either. Originally conceived as a PG-13-oriented teenage comedy, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg reworked the film into R-rated territory, but subplots involving Bob’s daughter, Franklin’s unsettling anger and hostility, a character’s impotence, a neighbor’s true motivations, and another character’s real identity, all gets lost in the shuffle. We have an “aliens-among-us” film, with about a dozen or so other things happening, and all of it is largely meaningless.
Real-life events in 2012 caused Twentieth Century Fox to change the name of this film from Neighborhood Watch to The Watch and seeing a character pull up his bed mattress to reveal a staggering amount of weaponry which he easily acquired on the internet, simply does not seem all that funny anymore.
So some will find The Watch to be a mindless, fun, sophomoric diversion from more serious fare. I get that. Midway through the film, I simply grew tired seeing Ben Stiller deliver monotone lines to set up Vince Vaughn’s impulsive zingers and then have Jonah Hill simply mutter about them under his breath. Save Richard Ayoade’s effortless comedic work, there is next to nothing to truly recommend with this disappointing and ill-conceived misfire.