Bumbling do-gooders, untimely yet still funny
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, July 27, 2012
Is it ever a good time for “The Watch”?
First, the comedy -- about a neighborhood watch group protecting an Ohio suburb from invading aliens -- had to change its name from “Neighborhood Watch,” when that term became so highly charged after the killing of an unarmed teenager in Florida earlier this year.
But today, watching “The Watch,” which stars Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade, creates another untimely discomfort. At one point in this raunchy, playfully vulgar comedy, Stiller’s character dons a T-shirt emblazoned with a logo that reads “No More Murders.” It’s played for laughs in a movie that indulges the same fetishized humor around weapons and violence that has become as cherished a rite of summer movies as guns themselves have become cherished rights.
With Colorado and the rest of the country still reeling, some viewers might not find “The Watch’s” blithe shoot-em-ups as much fun as they might have a few weeks ago. Then again, the premise of the movie is so goofy, the performances so winningly wacky, that a willing -- indeed eager -- suspension of disbelief has rarely been easier.
As “The Watch” opens, Evan (Stiller) explains in a voiceover why he’s so happy living in the suburban idyll of Glenview, Ohio -- where he lives with his pretty wife, Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), manages a nearby Costco and pursues a devotion on civic engagement that borders on the obsessive. When one of his night watchmen is gruesomely killed on the job, Evan immediately organizes a group to prevent further attacks. Soon, Evan is joined by Bob (Vaughn), Franklin (Hill) and Jamarcus (Ayoade) in a bumbling series of encounters with an unseen, green-goo-spewing foe.
“The Watch” was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, whose previous movie, “Pineapple Express,” provides some clues as to the sensibility at work here. Spiked with cheerful profanity and giddy sexual references, “The Watch” is a hard-R comedy with a soft heart at its center. Because the vibe and humor is by now familiar to anyone schooled in the Judd Apatow canon (or last year’s “Horrible Bosses”), it succeeds or fails on chemistry; luckily, the four actors play off one another with loose, spontaneous ease.
Vaughn and Hill find a particularly amusing rhythm, with Hill’s sotto voce patter providing a well-timed accompaniment to Vaughn’s soaring, motor-mouthed arias. (Never has an actor mined such comic gold from a Russian nesting doll.) Perfecting the persona he has honed over the “Night at the Museum” and “Meet the Parents” movies, Stiller makes for a smooth, sympathetic straight man whose earnest desire to make the world a better place can only end in hilarious, hyperbolic disaster.
In fact, most of the players in “The Watch” are simply delivering iterations of characters they’ve done before -- Vaughn since his manically verbose breakout performance in “Swingers” and Hill at least since “21 Jump Street,” in which he also played a frustrated mama’s boy who finds his swagger in a cool uniform and a cool pair of shades. (Also true to form: Will Forte as a supercilious local policeman.)
“The Watch” takes the same ethos of male bonding, obsession with sex and sardonic violence that has proved so profitable in recent years on yet another summer spin. The tires may be in need of changing pretty soon, but for now the jalopy still runs.
Contains strong sexual content, pervasive profanity and violent images.