REVIEW: Despite Hijinks and Dick Jokes Galore, The Watch Fails To Make Lasting Impression
Walking out of The Watch, Saturday Night Live writer Akiva Schaffer’s garrulous but indistinctive sophomore directing effort, a young woman in front of me complained to her friend. “What do you even say about that?” he’d asked. “I have no idea,” she said. She only had to write up a list of the movie’s pros and cons, and even then she could think of but one item for the former column.
It’s not that The Watch is terrible – it’s not not terrible, but there are sufficient diversions and more punitive ways to spend your evening – but that it’s one of those smoke bomb comedies that seems to disappear even while you’re watching, leaving no trace of itself behind. A studio gumbo of proven quantities – here’s Vince Vaughn doing his flirty, towel-snapping thing, Ben Stiller playing a tightly wound Citizen Costco, um, rabid aliens, beer- and pot-sealed enshrinement of male bonding – The Watch leaves very little to say because, despite the near-constant jabber, it says, and aspires to, so very little.
There is a concept, of course, and it’s high enough to track with those non-native Apatowians (Seth Rogen co-wrote the script with Jared Stern and his longtime writing partner Evan Goldberg) sadly unable to keep up with the movie’s urban thesaurus worth of masturbation references. Home team-loving Evan (Stiller) is what Max Fischer might be like if he grew up to manage a Costco and moved to Middle America. Trying to prop up his flagging self-image with extra credit community work, Evan is also trying (and failing) to have a child with his adorable wife (Rosemarie DeWitt). When his overnight security guard is found in a pile of viscera and green goo, Evan responds the only way he knows how: By deputizing himself as the leader of yet another organization, a neighborhood watch.
I saw the trailer for The Watch back when it was still called Neighborhood Watch, just as the February murder of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by a patrolling neighborhood watch volunteer was coming to national attention. No doubt a couple of 20th Century Fox executives had a couple of sleepless nights, wondering if their lewd little genre mash-up would be found guilty by association. They did what studios do in these dismally self-interested situations – a shell game currently being played by Warner Bros. with their Gangster Squad, whose release has been postponed until next year in the wake of the Aurora shootings: They changed the title. It’s all about optics and the bottom line, and between those two imperatives less and less to do with (moral and other kinds of) substance in storytelling and image making seems to survive.
With the exception of the character of Franklin (Jonah Hill), one of Evan's three compatriots (including Vaughn’s bored dad and Richard Ayoade as a deceptively well-bred Brit looking to blend in), and a funny scene in which Stiller and Vaughn vie to get the last bullet into an alien corpse, The Watch is too clearly about cartoon battles and puerile riffing to inspire queasiness. Police Academy reject Franklin is keen to whip some neighborhood ass; he slings a blade around, refers to their club as a “militia,” and has an arsenal of automatic weapons hidden under his childhood bed. He’s really a pussycat, of course, and when it falls on the quartet to save their town from alien invasion (Will Forte is brilliant as usual playing one of the town’s handful of ineffectual cops; a creepy Billy Crudup is also welcome in a small part) and a divide forms between the two alpha males, Stiller and Vaughn vie for his loyalty.
The Watch received an R-rating, which mostly means that the usual complement of dick jokes have room to flower into a full-blown penile fixation – to grow taller, bloom fatter, scatter more potent seeds, etc, etc. Some of it’s funny; most of it’s a flat-out grind. (Least clever is the movie’s nod to its own preoccupation with everything phallic and fluid; like I tell my landlord, acknowledging the problem is not the same as fixing it.)
Back in March, the Watch trailer preceded a showing of 21 Jump Street, a movie that should not have worked if ever a movie were doomed from the start (or by its title), and yet it restored my faith in the studio comedy; side by side the two movies are a study in the difference between inspired silliness and what is merely and persistently slight.
The Watch is in wide release Friday.