The biggest surprise in The Watch is that the horror/sci-fi aspects of this comedy mash up actually work.
The second biggest surprise is that the movie itself is actually quite enjoyable. The trailers leading up to the film’s released relied heavily on promoting tried shtick from Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill while trying to pretend the movie is more of an overgrown fratboy comedy than a genre movie comedy. Don’t get me wrong, that’s definitely part of the movie and there are plenty of improv marathons between the overplayed leads. However, this is also a far more satisfying sci-fi/comedy then Men In Black 3 even if the geek army who would eat this movie up will sadly probably miss out since they are committed to seeing The Dark Knight Rises yet again this weekend and were completely underwhelmed by the trailers. That’s a shame, because at it’s best The Watch recalls the movie drunk suburban paranoia of Joe Dante’s deeply underrated The ‘burbs. It’s not quite as good of course, mainly because Akiva Schaffer (Hot Rod) is more of a straight comedy director while Dante knew how to nail the genre elements just as well of the laughs. Still, the fact that it even invites those comparisons was unexpected and appreciated.
The film stars Ben Stiller as one of his stressed out and irrationally driven characters, this time working as the manager of a local Costco (ugh, I know but stick with it). One night his buddy the night watchmen is murdered and skinned, so Stiller sets out to set things right the only way he knows how, by forming a neighborhood watch group to do what the cops can’t. He ends up with a ragamuffin (there’s a word you don’t hear enough these days) crew compiled of Jonah Hill’s psychotic mamma’s boy, Vince Vaughn’s…er Vince Vaughn type, and the great Darkplace veteran Richard Ayoade as the type of peculiar social misfit only he can play. At first the group just drinks beer, stages stakeouts, and gets in fights with the inept local police (led by the almost unfairly funny Will Forte at his most deranged). Then one day they find an alien and not a friendly Spielberg alien either. Nope, this thing is the type of big scaly monster that Mulder and Scully would normally be called in to deal with. They also work out that the aliens are skinning folks to wear their skin as a disguise and pose as humans for an invasion. No one can be trusted in the town and the aliens gotta be stopped. So that means it’s time for some intergalactic neighborhood watch ass-kickery, right?
The central trio of Stiller, Vaughn, and Hill might be the most overplayed comedy performers of the last 5-6 years. Don’t get me wrong, they are all damn funny guys. The problem is that their talents have been milked by Hollywood bloodsuckers who have forced their screen personas into so many underwhelming vehicles like the Focker franchise, Couples Retreat, and The Sitter that what once seemed fresh now seems dull. That’s the curse of being a comedic performer who relies heavily on their personality, play the same character every time and people will eventually get tired of you. There are certainly times in the movie where Stiller gets uncomfortably control-freaky, Vaughn spits out never-ending speeches about god knows what, and Jonah Hill yells about his dick that remind you why you have vowed never to watch those comics again. The good news is that when they are all playing ball together, they come up with some strong stuff and there’s the ace in the hole of Richard Ayoade to provide a distinct and bizarre comedy voice that mercifully hasn’t been heard a million times before. Despite getting far less screentime than the big three, Ayoade practically steals the show and clearly forces the other guys to bring their A-game. Throw in a manic Will Forte and some more grounded comedic character work from the likes of the delightful Rosemarie Dewitt and the perpetually underappreciated Billy Crudup and you’ve got a cast primed to deliver the funny and deliver it they do.
SNL/Lonely Island vet Akiva Schaffer (he’s the tall one) directs and does a good job of managing all the voices and egos of his star cast. It was important to get a guy like him to helm the flick since he is one of those rare comedy directors who actually cares about how a film looks and knows how to shoot and edit a cinematic sequence. That’s key, because despite what the trailers suggest, there’s actually a great deal of intergalactic alien shinanegins in the picture that require a director who knows what he’s doing to pull it off. Schaffer always seems more comfortable when he can dole out some jokes along with the suspence and scares, but he does the straight stuff well enough and thankfully made the all too rare decision of actually using costume and puppet effects for the aliens, which you just don’t see enough these days. Guillermo Del Toro’s go-to monster man Doug Jones (he played pretty well every monster in Pan’s Labyrinth) plays the alien to creepy perfection and when some CGI does rear its ugly head in the climax, at least it’s combined with practical effects. The alien here is actually far better than the fake-Giger creature at the end of Prometheus and I doubt anyone could have seen that one coming.
I don’t want to oversell this flick, The Watch is not a masterpiece. A few sideplots like Ben Stiller’s infertility do nothing but distract from the fun and the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg penned screenplay relies more on penis jokes than even Superbad (bet you didn’t even think that was possible!). It’s a ragged project that suffers from the “too many ideas, not enough focus” issues that dog most Hollywood productions. However, when the movie is firing on all cylinders combing comedy, f/x, action, and suspense, it can be a hell of a lot of fun. This should have been released as a comedy blockbuster for the popcorn crowd rather than a place filler after the Dark Knight Rises’ weekend. My guess is that the studio was scared by the fact that The Watch wasn’t as cookie cutter as planned, turned out surprisingly R-rated, and featured more scares than planned. If you’re a fan of sci-fi or horror comedy, this thing is a must see, combining the genre elements far more effectively than anyone had a right to expect. It most certainly will not be considered a genre classic and will probably die a slow death at the box office, but for geeks and weirdos who enjoy a good R-rated genre mashup, it’s a blast. Give it a chance. This is one of those movies sure to be loathed by the crowd it’s marketed to while alienating the crowd that will actually appreciated it with said crap marketing. Maybe my enjoyment was predicated on entering the theater with such low expectations. If that’s the case, I hope I’m not the only one.