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The Watch

August 7, 2012
The Watch

Everything was in place; a decent enough premise with two decent screenwriters, anchored by four comedians whose work I enjoy. And yet, The Watch never really managed to get off the ground for me. Was it that the director — Akiva Schaffer — cut his eyeteeth on Andy Samberg digital shorts, or that the other big script by the main writer — Jared Stern — was Mr. Popper’s Penguins? Who can say?

Maybe it’s the fact that the basic concept was so much more effectively worked out in the 1989 Tom Hanks vehicle, The ‘Burbs. The exurban Glenview, Ohio never quite holds the menace that that Joe Dante pulled out of Hinkley Hills — the neighbors who were far enough away not to be sure of knowing them, but close enough to instill a certain claustrophobic paranoia. Indeed, rather than any creeping sense that something might not be quite right, we kick this film off with too-nice-guy Evan (Ben Stiller) finding the security guard at his Costco store slaughtered and flayed.

Since Evan’s wife, Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), is out of town he has no moderating influence, so he starts yet another club: the neighborhood watch. Of course nobody really takes his earnest routine seriously, so the only guys who show up are the fratty Bob (Vince Vaughn), the mildly nerdy Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), and the possibly unstable Franklin (Jonah Hill).

With the four assembled, we get plenty of schtick. Each actor’s character is pretty much their standard, with the exception of Hill, who has no single standard character. Still, it doesn’t feel like much of a stretch for him. They all seem very comfortable, and plenty of the dialogue seems to be improvised.

It soon comes out that the Costco security guard was killed by an alien, and there may be more who have disguised themselves as humans. Because what else do aliens do but disguise themselves as humans. Seriously, this was a thing during the cold war but why do we keep going back to the same old well now? Anyway, we’re left to wonder along with the Watchers who might really be an alien — the angry, shotgun-toting guy (R. Lee Ermey)? the creepy new neighbor across the street (Billy Crudup)? the horny teenager (Nicholas Braun) trying to nail Bob’s daughter (Erin Moriarty)? And of course the police (Will Forte and Mel Rodriguez) don’t take too kindly to amateurs.

All of which adds up to — wait for it — more opportunity for schtick! When you take away the stock characters’ improvised interactions, the story itself is pretty threadbare and boring. Nothing ever seems very well motivated, except to get the characters from one place a bit takes place to another place for another bit. Franklin said he lives with his mother, so let’s be sure to have him interact with her in some funny way. But then let’s hurry so Bob can be an awkward father in front of all his daughter’s friends. And hey, what if we made Evan impotent?

Sure, all four of the core cast are funny, and any given bit works well enough, but all the clips together don’t quite add up to an entire movie.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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