'The Watch' can't quite get all its parts ticking

Jonah Hill, Ben Stiller, Richard Ayoade and Vince Vaughn in 20th Century Fox's "The Watch".
August 5, 2012

It’s hard to view “The Watch” and not recall the overlooked slice of suburban horror from the ‘80s known as “The ‘Burbs.”

Actually, let me be more concise: It’s hard to view “The Watch.”

It sure looks polished, and there are elements that almost pass for comedy. You can feel yourself waiting, wanting to laugh, but the film never provides an adequate opportunity to do so. Instead, it allows its leads far too much time to improvisationally riff, with very little payoff.

Ben Stiller plays Evan Trautwig, a man whose American dream includes a peak goal of being regional manager at the local Costco. When the store's night watchman is murdered at the store, Evan vows to track down the killer, as the local police sergeant (played by an annoying Will Forte) is about as effective as a taser without a charge.

So Evan decides to form a neighborhood watch program that is rather inexplicably attended by Bob (played by Vince Vaughn), Franklin (played by Jonah Hill) and Jamarcus (played by Richard Ayoade). They are all given thin "reasons" for forming a watch, but there is absolutely nothing that suggests their bond becomes strong enough to actually stay in one. Each lead is allowed room to play to his strengths...perhaps far too much room. Stiller out-mensches even his menschiest role; Vaughn speaks as though he's received a Red Bull IV drip; Hill lifts some of the exact same scenes from his other (better) films, and Ayoade (perhaps unknown to many American audiences) is just a variation of his arid-dry delivery that made Brit-com "The IT Crowd." And as diverse as their individual comedic stylings may be, there is nothing that coheres them to make you believe these guys would want to spend one minute together unless a court order was involved.

So when the film awkwardly shifts to its true roots as an alien invasion flick, there's not a moment that carries the necessary comedic chemistry as, say "Ghostbusters" or the thematically similar (and far better) but overlooked British film "Attack the Block." Perhaps realizing how few chuckles this quartet generates, director Akiva Schaffer just crams the finale with a seemingly endless barrage of penis humor. Seriously, there is more sausage-centric chat here than a kielbasa factory.

The result is a film that is chameleonic to a fault. Schaffer works it like an artist who has no idea what medium to stick with, so his canvas is awash with oils, charcoals, inks and crayons. One minute, it's focusing on minor sitcom-like subplots involving infertility and teenage daughters, the next it's a buddy flick, before switching over to an epic-alien-invasion mode.

The time is certainly prime to revisit the mayhem behind the blinds of modern suburbia and the gentrification of America, but instead we get endless explanations as to why their group's logo is a flaming, winged tiger's head (The logo? Funny. Hearing them explain why it's so cool? Laborious). There's no one point at which "The Watch" unravels, as it never feels as though it was one singular vision to begin with. Instead, it just creeps along and mutates scene after scene so that, despite all of its focus on the male member, it remains flaccid throughout.