The Watch (retitled from Neighborhood Watch to avoid connections to the Trayvon Martin shooting in the US) didn’t exactly score with critics when it opened in the US this summer, as indicated by its sparkling 18% on the tomatometer. But I was surprised to find myself chuckling through most of it anyway; call it mildly amusing, which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but there you go.
I think I enjoyed this sci-fi comedy – which has traces of Ghostbusters and a good helping of The ‘burbs, another guilty pleasure – as much as possible, which still wasn’t quite enough. There’s just something missing here, and the film feels much more assembly-line than it ought to. But with a talented cast of comedy veterans and some offbeat humor, The Watch is just funny enough to scrape by.
Ben Stiller stars as Evan, Costco manager and community leader who grows concerned when the Costco night watchman is murdered and the incompetent local police (headed by Will Forte) seem ill-equipped to solve the crime. He decides to start a neighborhood watch group, and manages to recruit three other members: Bob (Vince Vaughn), Franklin (Jonah Hill), and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade). Evan is determined, but the other guys just want to hang out and knock back a few beers.
We know from the start what takes the characters ages to figure out: the murder was committed by alien menace that has set up shop in the Costco basement. Why Costco? Because the superstore must have paid a princely sum to be featured throughout most of the movie.
The Watch suffers from plot overkill; there’s the alien invasion storyline, the buddy comedy angle, and individual subplots for each of the leads: Evan is struggling to conceive with his wife (Rosemarie Dewitt), Bob is trying to preserve his daughter’s virginity, Franklin is fighting with his mother, and Jamarcus, well, Jamarcus has his own neighborhood watch fantasies. There’s also a red herring subplot involving Evan’s creepy neighbor (Jared Leto) that goes nowhere.
None of these storylines are done any justice. But when the film puts Stiller, Vaughn, Hill, and Ayoade (from Channel 4’s The IT Crowd) together in the same room (or car, or bush), comedy can’t help but occur. Their scenes together feel like improv, in a good way, and are the best the film has to offer.
The Watch was written by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg (who previously collaborated on the terrific Superbad and Pineapple Express, and the disastrous Green Hornet) and directed by Saturday Night Live (and Lonely Island) veteran Akiva Schaffer.
There’s not much originality going on here, and the overall construction of the movie is a bit of a mess, but the filmmakers were at least able to bring together a cast that would provide some kind of entertainment value regardless of the film that surrounds them.
Bonus: the aliens have been crafted (at least partially) using practical effects. They look roughly the same as the generic Cowboys & Aliens type creatures that have been gracing screens for the past few years, but the lack of CGI really adds to their menacing presence.
Alternative (read: better) recent alien invasion comedy: Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block, which stayed true to its genre and was both frightening and genuinely fun.