(L-R) Jonah Hill, Ben Stiller, Richard Ayoade and Vince Vaughn in "The Watch"
According to an old showbiz saw, the key to comedy is timing. Well, the new big-budget sci-fi comedy "The Watch" has a problem there.
The laugher about a self-appointed "neighborhood watch" doing what the cops can't comes just five months after a neighborhood-watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., defied police and pursued, shot and killed an unarmed teenager. If and when the Trayvon Martin shooting ever becomes a distant memory, "The Watch" will be able to stand on its own. But for now, the net of reality has entangled this bit of would-be escapism.
For a while, even in spite of egregious corporate-brand placement, the film appears to be an almost accidentally daring satire. Scripted by Jared Stern and Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, the picture opens with fussbudget hero Evan (Ben Stiller) introducing us to "the greatest town in the greatest country on the greatest planet in the universe": Glenview, Ohio. He doesn't have any black friends, he tells us, but he's in the market for one.
Evan likes to be involved: as a city councilman, doing highway cleanup, you name it. So when the big-box-store manager discovers that his Hispanic security guard (Joe Nunez) -- freshly anointed an American citizen -- has been brutally killed (unbeknownst to anyone, by a space alien), Evan organizes a neighborhood watch with the intention of finding the murderer.
Enter hyperactive alpha-bro Bob (Vince Vaughn), police-reject Franklin (Jonah Hill) and the apparently biracial Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade of Britcom "The IT Crowd"), and the motley watch begins its nightly patrols. This would-be "Ghostbusters" puts stock in green goo and plentiful explosions to complement the comedy-team fireworks, but "The Watch" also chooses to make its in-over-their-heads heroes dumb instead of smart, then celebrates them anyway.
Part of the joke is that this inept bunch gets together and blithely commits crimes in the process of trying to foil them, and they become drunk on power whenever they perceive the tiniest of victories. Hill's character particularly (and, again, accidentally) evokes trigger-happy wannabe George Zimmerman. Ever-angry and constantly flicking his butterfly knife, Franklin lives with his mother and explains his failed bid to join the police force: "Apparently I didn't pass the written exam or the physical exam or the mental-health exam."
As director Akiva Schaffer sticks "Straight Outta Compton" and "The Boyz in the Hood" on the soundtrack, "The Watch" parodies the middle-class middle-American male's need to test and prove his manhood, to himself and others (also, Stiller's character frets over not being able to give his wife a child). But the movie also buys into traditional masculinity. When Evan cries over the death of the security guard (accompanied by a Spanish cover of "The Sound of Silence"), we're prompted to laugh.
Despite the amusing verbal riffs (most of them from still-got-it motor-mouth Vaughn) and expert delivery from all four leads, having its main characters both ways -- horrifying yet heroic -- ultimately sinks this scattershot exercise. A body-snatchers subplot brings to mind Rod Serling's suburban-paranoia parable "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," but "The Watch" falls back on the convention of the inept heroes -- spoiler alert -- saving the day. Any other year, we probably wouldn't bat an eye at that, but what's the key to comedy?
Rated R for strong sexual content including references, pervasive language and violent images. 1 hour, 38 minutes.
- Peter Canavese