From the outside, 20th Century Fox‘s comedy “The Watch” seems to have its cup runneth over with the talent at its disposal. The film stars the quartet of Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and celebrated British director/writer/comedian Richard Ayoade (director of “Submarine”). It’s directed by Akiva Schaffer, the talented young filmmaker behind SNL‘s Digital Shorts — arguably the only thing keeping the show relevant for the last five years — and the screenwriters are “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express” scribes Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. And with appearances by Will Forte, Billy Crudup, a quick Lonely Island group cameo and more, everything seems to be stacked in this comedy’s favor. But try as they might, this collective wattage of talented funny people are lost within a lifeless, tepid and uninspired comedy.
Pitched somewhere between “Ghostbusters,” “The ‘Burbs” and “Mystery Men” (which also featured too many talented people shoehorned into a flat movie), “The Watch” is not particularly engaging and inconsistently amusing (lots of hits, but many more misses) and then when it switches gears and becomes an alien invasion picture, well, you really couldn’t care less, as the stakes never particularly feel that urgent.
And it’s difficult to know where to pin the blame exactly. The script is rather unimaginative, juvenile and crude, but it also feels nondescript and bland, like a work-for-hire gig, even when the comedians have clearly tailored it to their stylings after the fact. And everyone’s largely playing a cliched archetype of themselves. Ben Stiller is typically uptight and OCD and Vaughn is the jovial loudmouth who likes to have a good time. Jonah Hill fares slightly better as the unhinged sociopath who wants to be a police officer, but Richard Ayoade’s thinly-written character essentially amounts to “British.”
Not that it matters, but here’s the setup: In quiet, boring Glenview, Ohio, Evan Troutwig (Stiller) is the control-freak, order-happy manager of a local Costco. Though his lusty wife Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) is eager to get pregnant, Evan is busy forming club after club as a way to escape his own life and yet fulfill his need to dictate every aspect of everyone else’s personal space. When Antonio (Joe Nunez), a security guard at the store, is suddenly killed in what appears to be a savage murder at Costco, Evan springs into action after being rebuffed by the local ineffectual police (led by Will Forte), and at a local high school football game, calls upon the community to form a neighborhood watch to safeguard the suburban commonwealth.
Largely ridiculed for his efforts, Evan eventually does find some recruits in Bob (Vaughn), Franklin (Hill) and Jamarcus (Ayoade), but they’re trying to escape their family (Bob), looking to try something new (Jamarcus), and need an outlet for their anger (Hill). The first group meeting quickly dissolves into a party at Bob’s man cave where brewskis and stories are swapped instead of the group forming any kind of concrete game plan for finding Antonio’s killer, the impetus of Evan forming the group in the first place. But soon Evan’s pouting and pushy nature does force everyone to actually do some investigating (as half-baked as it is), and what follows is a shapeless, lethargic movie that rests solely on the ability of the leads to rise above the mediocre material.
Originally conceived as a PG-13 movie with the relatively milquetoast Shawn Levy attached to direct, one can almost see the parts where it was reconstructed to lamely earn an R-rating (which it doesn’t make much use of). Early in the picture, it is suggested that Evan doesn’t like to swear or drink, but that little character note is eventually dropped. A sequence which features a half dozen or so topless women feels like a studio note or ploy to get a harder rating, rather than a natural extension of the premise. But mostly, it’s Schaffer who comes off the worst here. You would think that given the pure irreverence and absurdity of his SNL work (and especially his debut feature “Hod Rod“), some of that spirit would be found here, but it’s disappointingly missing. Those instincts seem to have been largely muted, and when the alien invasion plot gears up, even the over-the-top sci-fi action doesn’t deliver with the ridiculousness that you might expect.
Laughs from the film are far and few between, but you cannot have a picture where Hill, Vaughn and Stiller are riffing and not come up with some uproarious moments, which “The Watch” does contain at times. Vaughn in particular excels at the speed-freak-like maniacal improv he’s known for and even if it’s predictably his schtick, at least it’s funny. Hill and Stiller do get their moments of comedy-riffing laughs too, but when these sometimes-hilarious lines and gags arrive, they almost act as a brief, enjoyable reprieve from the banal and dull picture that’s taking place around them. And part of that problem again comes from Schaffer, who is undeniably great at delivering YouTube-length clips that deliver humor with a big punch, but stumbles in finding a proper pacing for a 90- to 100-minute film. Much of the film sags and shuffles along with not much to hang on to, besides the leads doing their best to punch up the proceedings.
And you would think that it’s simply not that complicated: get these four guys together, then watch the sparks fly. But a rather misguided story decision puts in a quasi-dramatic, and largely inessential, subplot that finds Evan hiding the fact that he’s sterile from his wife as some kind of character texture to explain away his various quirks. But it does absolutely nothing for the picture and winds up being inessential to anything else that’s happening in the movie. It also doesn’t help that Stiller and a (thoroughly wasted) DeWitt don’t share much screen time either, making their “conflict” short-lived to the point where it’s discussed and resolved in literally one scene. Meanwhile, Vaughn’s subplot featuring his teenage daughter Chelsea (Erin Moriarty) works because he has someone to play off of. As a concerned Dad battling her emerging sexuality and TMI-proclivities on Facebook, these scenes are much funnier and feel more organic (even if one moment is a direct rip from “Uncle Buck“), but again, it’s weak character stuff in a movie that is already struggling to do one thing right: be funny.
“The Watch” certainly possesses a lot of energy, but it’s never harnessed or focused effectively. As a buddy comedy, all four leads have done better – you already know what those movies are, and this one doesn’t stand among them. As a sci-fi invasion flick, it’s pretty rote and predictable despite a bigger effects budget and scale than we might have expected. Shoddily assembled and rarely generating the hilarity it should, “The Watch” is a missed opportunity and a genre mashup the largely fails to entertain or thrill. [C-]