The Film That Wasn’t There, by David Bax
Akiva Schaffer’s The Watch is a movie that is hardly about anything at all. Certainly, it has a plot but in terms of a reason to exist, it pretty much comes up empty-handed. Were I being generous, I could describe it as a film about outsiders trying to find a place where they belong and a group of people who accept them. But those elements are such a haphazard afterthought that their being crammed in at all only lessens the film’s already meager impact.
As mentioned, there is a plot. It’s the story of Evan Trautwig (Ben Stiller), a CostCo manager inspired to start a neighborhood watch program when one of his employees is brutally murdered. The only recruits he’s able to muster are Bob (Vince Vaughn), a construction manager and suburban dad with a penchant for laddish fun; Franklin (Jonah Hill), a sometimes sweet-natured, sometimes psychopathic high school dropout; and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), a recently divorced and deceptively mild-mannered Brit. First, they’re terrible at protecting the neighborhood, then they have to fight aliens.
Schaffer is a veteran director of Saturday Night Live’s digital shorts, now helming his second feature after Hot Rod, a little-seen but well-regarded (amongst comedy nerds) 2007 film. For a guy with such comedic cred, there’s very little joy to the staging and execution of The Watch’s many set-pieces. Despite the fact that white guys shooting guns in slow motion while gangsta rap plays will always look cool, the film is devoid of the excitement of last year’s Attack the Block, also an alien invasion comedy.
Schaffer’s ball-dropping aside, there actually is a fair amount to chuckle at in The Watch. All of it comes from the cast. Vaughn may not bring anything new to his schtick but he exuberantly proves that it still works. Hill makes a case for Hollywood comedy improvisation that is more than just wanking. Ayoade, long a treasure of British television comedy, brings his magnetic weirdness Stateside. And Stiller, here as in last year’s surprisingly decent Tower Heist, displays a late-career aptitude for playing the (mostly) straight man. The film’s MVP, however, may be Will Forte as the local representative of the actual police force. Though he’s absent for long stretches of time, each of his returns to the screen brings consistent hilarity with its aggressive bizarreness.
If only the screenwriters (Jared Stern, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) channeled the same unpredictable weirdness Forte did. Instead, what they wrote comes to increasingly resemble an R-rated movie for 12-year-old boys, evidenced by the fact that a pivotal plot point in the third act is essentially just one sustained dick joke. And not a very good one. Far more troubling, though, is Billy Crudup’s role as the creepy, possibly gay neighbor who is only creepy because he is possibly gay. The juvenile homophobia of this element is both tasteless and, frankly, outdated.
The Watch may be fast-paced but it caroms from scene to scene with no thematic structure to lend it a destination. There is an encounter at about the one hour mark in which Evan and Bob argue and Bob gives voice to all of Evan’s problems. It’s such a lazy and blatant attempt to give our protagonist a meaningful purpose beyond shooting at aliens that the film would be better if the scene didn’t take place at all.
Schaffer has made great comedy for sketch television and the internet. Therefore, he should know that action sequences and scenes of guys joking around are readily available on any number of websites. We need more reasons than those to go to a movie now. The Watch simply does not provide them.