Something strange keeps happening in The Watch, a new Ben Stiller-Vince Vaughn comedy that’s apparently sponsored by Costco, Tide and MAGNUM-brand condoms. Residents of a bucolic Ohio suburb discover that their safe haven has been infiltrated by extraterrestrials, yet they react as if they’re being told a new Starbucks is opening at the corner of Main Street and Grand Ave. Though faced with the threat of extinction due to the impending alien invasion, Vaughn would rather stalk his teenage daughter’s Facebook account and Stiller still frets over an infertility problem that’s preventing he and his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) from having their first child. Would such personal problems still matter if the end of the world were near? Must we still pretend to care?
Such is the crippling identity problem of The Watch, a movie that desperately wants to be Ghostbusters -- where funny actors confront supernatural happenings -- but doesn’t understand what made Ivan Reitman’s classic tick. Director Akiva Schaffer dresses down his A-list comedians in their best “Average Joe” impersonations, then pits them against an out-of-this-world opponent. Yet no matter what direction Ghostbusters veered (and it often bobbed and weaved in search of the right joke), every punchline was rooted in the search for and battle with ghosts. The Watch, however, picks up, plays with, then quickly drops its alien conceit every few minutes. It’s never quite sure what do with its sci-fi premise, so it winds up doing very little at all.
Perhaps it wouldn’t matter, anyway. So many extenuating circumstances secretly conspired against The Watch over the past few months, you could reasonably conclude that God was opposed to the movie ever reaching theaters. For starters, the film had to change its title (and rethink its marketing campaign) after the tragic shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin at the hands of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. As if that wasn’t bad enough, a week before The Watch opens, a lunatic opens fire in a Colorado movie theater, making it difficult to belly laugh at currently insensitive jokes about gunplay, shootouts and campaigns to stop the senseless murders in our suburban community. “Our society has rules,” Stiller tells a crowd after an unfortunate killing in the film’s first act, and we wince at the bad taste of a joke that’s the victim of poor timing.
The Watch would have to be fall-on-the-floor funny to overcome the obstacles outside events have placed in its path. It’s not.
That’s not to say there aren’t amusing moments in The Watch. It’s just that few of them can be traced back to the four leads. Will Forte plays an arrogant small-town cop who’s an outstandingly bizarre foil to Stiller’s straight-guy routine. R. Lee Ermey milks the umpteenth spoof of his deranged Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant, yet still musters a chuckle simply by swearing and imposing his will. And Billy Crudup saunters out of left field to steal a handful of scenes as Stiller’s mysterious new neighbor. We’re supposed to suspect Crudup’s character of being an alien. The reality of his situation provides a much funnier payoff (and allows director Akiva Schaffer’s The Lonely Island colleagues to make a gratuitously gross but humorous cameo).
Everything funnels through the four-man Watch team, and two guys can’t pull weight. Richard Ayoade guards a secret with his deadpan delivery, and Jonah Hill switches gears to play a borderline psychotic eager to patrol in this suburban “militia.” Vaughn and Stiller, however, turn out carbon copies of characters from their past. The latter has been playing the put-upon dweeb for so long, he at least discovers a new shade to exploit for The Watch. Vaughn, though, retreats right back to the rapid patter and false bravado he first introduced nearly 15 years ago as Trent in Doug Liman’s Swingers. Vaughn has become a parody of himself at this point.
Schaffer is a talented filmmaker responsible for some hilarious skits and segments with The Lonely Island colleagues Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone. His claim to fame probably remains Lazy Sunday, the digital short he created for Saturday Night Live. But unless you worship at the altar of Hot Rod (which is possible), Schaffer has yet to transition his creative eye to a feature-length effort, and those hoping The Watch finally was going to be his breakthrough comedy will be forced to keep waiting a little while longer.