Stiller, Vaughn Alien Comedy A Waste Of Space

“The Watch” is a laughably inept comedic wasteland in which the only things harder to come by than laughs are reasons not to bolt halfway through and ask for a refund. The script, written by Jared Stern and “punched up” by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, comes across as a rough draft via anonymous film school dropout and the film itself is begging for a full slate of test screenings and reshoots. I laughed five times (I counted) throughout the course of its 100-minute running time, a fact that I mentioned to a friend in the lobby after the film. Another filmgoer who apparently overheard me replied, “That’s three more times than I [laughed].”

A movie about a quartet of disgruntled, middle-aged, male suburbanites fighting off an alien invasion is ostensibly a comedy, right? When you add Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill to that mix (all of whom have been a part of some great comedies), you have a recipe for an entertaining, if not earth-shattering, summer diversion. The actual result is baffling, almost as if all of the effort of the cast and crew went into making “The Watch” as uninteresting, bland, and unfunny as possible.

Director Akiva Schaffer, one third of comedy troupe “The Lonely Island,” deserves plenty of blame for this mess. If the film as it stands is a collection of the best takes Schaffer could provoke from his actors (there are plenty of obvious ad-libs), it suggests a hopelessly tin ear for comedy. His visual instincts aren’t much better. The only notable visuals come from the art department, as the aliens are well realized, cosmetically speaking. Even the CGI is occasionally impressive.

Ben Stiller plays Evan, the uptight manager of a small-town Costco whose friend and employee is mysteriously murdered in the middle of the night. He holds an organizational meeting to set up a neighborhood watch, and three local men show up – Bob (Vince Vaughn), an uptight dad who has nothing better to do than monitor his teenage daughter’s Facebook activity, Franklin (Jonah Hill), a wannabe cop with severe emotional problems, and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), a British nerd with a penchant for Asian housewives.

There are three utterly useless subplots also in play. Evan and his wife, Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), can’t get pregnant (which means absolutely nothing to the story, except that Evan inexplicably but purposefully brings his wife along to a big standoff with the aliens inside his Costco store). The second involves Bob hating his daughter’s boyfriend and trying to separate the two at every turn. The third features the great but underused Billy Crudup as Evan’s strange new neighbor. Here, he’s not so much underused as he is misused. His character is a punchline… without much of a punchline.

The only source of laughs is Jonah Hill, who does a lot with very little dialogue. His character is immature and emotionally unstable, making him the only wild card of the bunch. There’s a particularly funny, if brief, montage set to The Doors’ “People Are Strange” that might be the only inspired moment in the entire film, and Hill goes out of his way to sell it. His is the only character that isn’t one-dimensional and more of that unpredictability would have gone a long way in making the film less stale.

The amount of dead air in “The Watch” is almost staggering. Watching the stars of “Zoolander” and “Wedding Crashers” and “Superbad” go minutes on end without providing a single laugh isn’t just disappointing – it’s borderline uncomfortable. The whole endeavor comes across as a banal family-friendly film that was hastily re-written to be raunchy, which may not be far from the truth. Imagine “Night At The Museum,” but with lots of four-letter words and off-the-wall sexual humor. Actually, that sounds much funnier than “The Watch,” but I’m not sure what wouldn’t after being subjected to such an incompetent mess.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: July 27, 2012
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Akiva Schaffer
Screenwriter: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jared Stern
Starring: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Will Forte, Billy Crudup
MPAA Rating: R (for some strong sexual content including references, pervasive language and violent images)