With Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Rosemarie DeWitt. Written by Jared Stern and Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg. Directed by Akiva Schaffer. Rated R (for some strong sexual content including references, pervasive language and violent images). 98 minutes.
Last year saw an attempt to cross the science fiction film with the western with “Cowboys & Aliens.” This year we get THE WATCH (changed from “Neighborhood Watch” after Trayvon Martin’s murder this past winter), mixing the moron guy comedy with yet another alien invasion story. It’s “The Hangover” meets “Attack The Block.” The result is a movie unlikely to please fans of either genre.
Ben Stiller is Evan, a manager at a local big box store. He’s an organizer in his community who sees himself as a do-gooder even if it’s a way for him to avoid the real issues in his life. When an employee is murdered under mysterious circumstance, Evan forms a neighborhood watch. The three guys who show up to the organizational meeting are each cartoonish in their own right.
Bob (Vince Vaughn) is the loud, overly-friendly neighbor who sees this as an opportunity to drink beer with a bunch of the guys. Franklin (Jonah Hill) is a somewhat creepy high school dropout who flunked the police physical and written exams and possibly the mental health screen as well. Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade) is quirky Brit who thinks answering the calls of his neighbors might help him fulfill a sexual fantasy.
Much of the first part of the film has them acting out, whether it’s drinking beer, running down a skateboarder who egged them, or engaging in raunchy humor. Then it becomes clear that the murderer is not of this world, leading to such witticisms as a running joke as to whether alien goo found at the scene feels like human ejaculate. There is actually an extended scene exploring the nuances of this very lame joke.
When we see the aliens it’s clear that special effects guys are still under the influence of H.R. Giger’s landmark designs for “Alien.” One can see where this might have worked a lot better if the science fiction elements were upfront rather than a seeming afterthought. (A brief prologue starts in space but only to lead us to how much Evan loves his suburban Ohio town.) One of the funniest moments in the film – indicating where it might have gone – is when the guys seem to have killed an alien and decide to take souvenir photos with the corpse. At that moment the comedy is in the service of the plot rather than just the usual horny, drunk guys bantering.
The performances are above par for this sort of movie, with Vaughn playing the overly-protective father of a teenage daughter to good effect and Ayoade – who has done mostly British television – proving offbeat as the new neighbor. Stiller plays his usual nebbish, while Hill may give the most troublesome performance. It’s going to be a while before the character of a troubled dropout with a fondness for dangerous weapons is not going to be a reminder of recent events.
“The Watch” is lowest common denominator comedy. If you think a male neighbor telling Evan he has “nice skin” is the height of hilarity or, better yet, a guy urinating into an empty soda can, then you’ll have a great time. If you’re more curious how well the moron comedy and the alien invasion film work together, let’s put it this way: as well as chocolate syrup goes with sushi.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.