“The Watch” brings to mind the classic Rodney Dangerfield line about going to a fight and a hockey game breaks out. With this movie, you go to a comedy about a quartet of erratic men who form a Neighborhood Watch and an alien-invasion movie breaks out.
This witless comedy conforms to no inner logic that gets you from a suburban comedy to extraterrestrial visitation, and you’re tempted to call the whole thing cartoonish except for this: From “The Simpsons” and “South Park” on TV to Pixar animation in movie houses, cartoons these days have rigorous internal logic in presenting highly complex and detailed fantasy worlds.
The makers of “The Watch” should watch more cartoons.
“The Watch” bangs around amid sophomoric gags, misfiring skits, superfluous scenes, inane secondary characters and potty-mouth sequences that feel like they come from different movies. Like maybe someone deliberately mixed up coming-attraction trailers so “Prometheus,” “Ted” and “To Rome With Love” are all edited together into one awful mess.
Perhaps the trouble can be traced to director Akiva Schaffer’s background as a director, co-writer and editor of “SNL” Digital Shorts. The movie certainly acts as if every five to ten minutes another short gets underway. I can’t say they get any better, however.
The movie comes with another problem not of its own choosing. The film underwent a title change (it was originally “Neighborhood Watch”) as a result of the fatal shooting of Treyvon Martin by a Neighborhood Watch member in Florida.
Like the atrocity in Aurora, Colorado, during a “The Dark Knight Rises” midnight screening last week, this film has nothing of course to do with the real-life tragedy but does serve as a reminder that life can mimic art in cruel ways.
The truly odd thing in all the miscalculations that went into “The Watch” is that the film starts with its own tragedy, which the film then plays for laughs. Ben Stiller is an anal-retentive control freak — even he must be getting tired of playing this role — named Evan, a Costco manager in a smallish Midwestern town.
Then his night watchman, one who just got his American citizenship no less, is brutally murdered. Cue the laugh track to reaction shots of Stiller grimacing at a body totally skinned (not seen on camera, fortunately) and a police force consisting of two do-nothing cops (Will Forte and Mel Rodriguez) who smirk and lazily peg Evan as their only suspect.
Evan decides to form a Neighborhood Watch “to solve the murder and keep an eye on suspicious activity.” Now Neighborhood Watches have nothing
to do with solving crimes, but never mind because the only three guys who show up don’t want to do anything more than party in a man cave belonging to Bob (Vince Vaughn).
Bob has rules-and-restriction issues with his teenage daughter — think of Alec Baldwin’s obscenity-laced tirade against his daughter a few years back and you’ve got it — so the Watch is a great way for him to escape familial responsibilities.
Meanwhile Franklin (Jonah Hill) lives at home with mom and failed all the tests as a candidate for the police department including the mental health one.
Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade, a British comedian and actor who directed a smart coming-of-age film, “Submarine,” in 2010) is confused into thinking that the Watch will somehow lead to him receiving oral gratification from a young Asian woman. Unfortunately, this is the kind of film where that’s exactly what happens.
The search for the “Costco Killer” leads to all sorts of improbable run-ins with police, a cantankerous old man with a shotgun, a neighborhood orgy, parties with hormonal teens and those pesky aliens.
Not surprisingly, gruesome murders, alien conspiracies and lame jokes about the suburbs don’t make a satisfying comic outing. Indeed you’d be hard pressed to say what the premise of “The Watch” even is.
There is, for instance, a subplot involving Evan’s magically appearing/disappearing wife Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) from whom her husband is withholding news of a recent medical test that disclosed his infertility. Certainly this is a reasonable subplot for a comedy but like so many other things it fits so awkwardly into this movie as to be a complete throwaway.
The screenplay comes from a team not lacking in talent — Jared Stern, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg — but the sloppiness is impressively bad. Did each one write a scene, then throw it to the next guy to take the story in a new direction?
Whatever the case, “The Watch” is not worth watching.
Tech credits are mediocre with flat, eye-level camera framing, dull editing and little energy despite the increasingly frantic nature of the acting.
Opens: July 27, 2012 (20th Century Fox)
Production companies: 20th Century Fox presents in association with Dune Entertainment a 21 LAPS production
Cast: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Rosemarie DeWitt, Will Forte, Doug Jones, R. Lee Ermey, Nicholas Braun, Joseph A. Nuñez, Mel Rodriguez
Director: Akiva Schaffer
Screenwriter: Jared Stern, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Producer: Shawn Levy
Executive producers: Dan Levine, Monica Levinson
Director of photography: Barry Peterson
Production designer: Doug Meerdink
Music: Christophe Beck
Costume designer: Wendy Chuck
Editor: Dean Zimmerman
R rating, 106 minutes