Last summer saw the release of Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens, a film that quite inexplicably found the right balance between a science fiction alien invasion thriller and a western, two disparate genres if ever there were any. Now we have The Watch, in which a hostile alien takeover has been paired with a raunchy buddy comedy. This time around, something went horribly wrong. The genres don’t mesh. Perhaps they could have in the hands of a more focused creative team; director Akiva Schaffer and writers Jared Stern, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg aren’t interested in finding a balance so much as they are in being as crude as possible. As a result, they never seem to know what they want their film to be. This is a confused film that spends less time on the aliens and more time on straining merely halfway funny jokes to the point of unendurable monotony.
Taking place in a suburban Ohio town, the film’s main character is Evan Trautwig (Ben Stiller), the manager of a Costco Wholesale store. More than a little politically correct, he prides himself on knowing and respecting people of various ethnic backgrounds, from his Hispanic nighttime security guard to his Korean neighbor, who’s always washing her car. He doesn’t yet know any black people, he tells us during his opening voiceover narration, but he’s eager to work towards that goal. He’s an active member of his community, having formed and micromanaged numerous clubs and organizations. He takes his volunteer work quite seriously, but as one shot in a community center makes perfectly clear, not too many people are inspired by his enthusiasm. I would wager to guess that most of the people he knows are laughing at him behind his back, and that if he were to find out about it, he would never stop crying.
When the aforementioned security guard is found skinned alive inside Costco, Evan channels his grief into the formation of a neighborhood watch. With any luck, the killer will be tracked down and brought to justice. Ultimately, only three people join Evan in his crusade, except they don’t see it as a crusade so much as an excuse to act like fratboys on a bender. There’s Bob Finnerty (Vince Vaughn), and despite the fact that he’s a loud and crude bachelor type, he’s also the father of a teenage girl, and he’s desperate to protect her from the evils of boys. There’s Franklin (Jonah Hill), who has had emotional problems after dropping out of high school and flunking the test to join the local police. He brandishes a switchblade and has a stash of guns under his bed. He also lives with his mother. Finally, there’s Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), who comes off as a cross between a horny pervert and a computer nerd.
Although Evan is sincere in his efforts to get to the bottom of the murder, the other three really just want to goof off. How lucky that they all just happened to stumble onto a basketball-sized metal sphere, which shoots a laser capable of blowing things up. This eventually leads to another lucky discovery, namely that of an insectoid alien creature with green goo for blood. They don’t know what it’s here, but after a night of posing its supposedly dead body in the most immature of ways, they learn that it is but one of many creatures that already walks among them. They become paranoid. Who in their community is an alien in disguise? Evan has reason to believe that his neighbor, played by an uncredited Billy Crudup, might be one of them. He’s a creepy, lecherous man who makes blatantly homoerotic advances on Evan, and eventually on Jamarcus.
Several ill-fitting subplots work their way into this narrative, begging the question of who really had control over the screenplay, if anyone at all. One involves Evan’s wife, Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), and their lack of success at having a baby. Another involves Bob spying on his daughter at a friend’s party, where she meets up with a boy eager to speed things along. There’s nothing innately funny about either scenario, and indeed, there are moments when the filmmakers come within a hair’s breadth of taking them seriously. This is the wrong approach. You cannot believably take a dramatic turn when the dialogue is littered with obscene sexual references and vulgar jokes that are permitted to continue long after they have stopped being funny.
There’s really no need for me to bring this up, but it’s now well known that the original title of the film was Neighborhood Watch and that the first official ad campaign was pulled following the controversial shooting death of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Can we all agree that the film would have been just as bad even if the shooting had never happened? In order for The Watch to have worked, someone somewhere along the way needed to determine what direction to take the story in and then stay on that path. There’s nothing to be gained by mashing up incongruous genres just for the sake of mashing. One must find a way to get them to work in harmony. That balance wasn’t found. All we have here is a waste of talent, money, and time. It’s not as if you’ll be getting those 100 minutes of your life back.
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20th Century Fox