Comedic all-stars (both in front of and behind the camera) come together for alien-action-comedy "The Watch," but the invasion never provides more than a smattering of belly laughs. Starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and British thespian Richard Ayoade (actor on hit programs like "The IT Squad," and writer/director of last year’s indie hit "Submarine"). "The Watch" is directed by Akiva Schaffer (of the Lonely Island musical group, also of "Hot Rod,") and it’s written by Seth Rogen and his partner Evan Goldberg, among others. How the hell did this much talent produce something so middling?
"The Watch" sells itself as an alien comedy but features the human-sized critters in no more than a handful of scenes (perhaps it’s taking a cue from "The Dark Knight Rises," which hardly features the Dark Knight.) A gruesome death at a Costco - featured so heavily in the movie that you imagine their corporate offices wrote the film, as opposed to just funding it - leads manager Evan (Stiller) to create a neighborhood watch group to protect his liberal ideals (the opening monologue sees him bragging about how many "racial friends" he has).
But he ends up with less of a team and more of a group of drinking buddies. Vaughn just wants some guys to hang out with, Jonah Hill (twirling a switchblade and wearing a jacket ripped right out of "Taxi Driver,") needs somewhere to expel his violent energy, and Ayoade simply hopes it will lead to an Asian women performing oral sex on him (really.) So of course, the genre plot is sidelined so these guys can learn the meaning of friendship, pick up lessons from each other.... Seriously, you know the rest already.
Some of the jokes land, sure, but there’s nothing to remember once the credits have rolled. It simply feels like smaller bits and pieces from funnier movies, thrown together without any attempt at a cohesive structure or a controlled pace.
We have the "pan up to astonished faces" Spielberg shots (because anything that has to do with aliens requires Spielberg references, I guess,) the loosely structured improve scenes we’ve come to recognize Rogen’s writing for, the random scenes of irreverence (a cameo-laden orgy, say,) that we recognize Schaffer for - hell, Jonah Hill even steals a joke (about his reluctant willingness to suck dicks) from himself, re-using a joke from "21 Jump Street." These guys are resting on their laurels; I’ve never seen a genre film coast on pre-existing star personalities and derivative gags the way this film does.
This is probably because not one of the characters even has an interesting arc; in fact you’re left disappointed by all of them. The movie acts as if they’re hiding something (it’s true in one case, trying to explain why Stiller won’t have sex with his wife played by Rosemarie DeWitt - and no, I don’t believe it either,) but in reality it’s just the actors playing things without any sense of consistency. Vaughn is scary-amped-up the whole film, as if carrying on his character from "Swingers" and "Made," but it’s dropped quickly to be the voice of reason (every guy movie needs one.) Hill’s in the same boat, introduced as a sociopath but quickly receding into something less dangerous. Forget aliens, what this movie is afraid of is taking chances.
And thus, director Akiva Schaffer (who earned himself quite a reputation for cult-cool with 2007’s hilarious flop "Hot Rod" and his ensuing Lonely Island music videos) completely sells out his eccentric comedy style here for something commercial and studio-safe. Gone is the choppy YouTube-style editing and endearing cheapness; in its place is traditional cheapness (the aliens either look like C-grade CGI or C-grade men-in-rubber-suits, depending on the scene) and safe comedy. Sure, penis jokes may be dirtier, but there’s nothing here to match the eccentricity and uniqueness of "Hot Rod," with its breaks for music videos and Danny McBride dance scenes. This is what it looks like when an artistic voice is broken by studio control.
It’s a real shame. The film has laughs, and will work great in 20-minute blocks on TBS on a Sunday afternoon. But there’s no strong narrative here, a total lack of interesting characters, and the alien plot feels tacked-on to the buddy comedy to the point where you wish it were just a movie about the 4 guys (at least it wouldn’t be so unfocused and full of divergences.) As is, it just feels like a weak studio attempt to recapture the hip-alien-adventure mood pervading through "Attack the Block" (and to a lesser extent, through "Super 8" and "Paul" and all the other nostalgic alien-movies to which we’re suddenly being subjected.) We have a director, actors, and a set of writers all known for their well-defined taste for the irreverent. How have they created something this ordinary?