In “The Watch,” a comedy opening Friday starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill, Stiller plays a character named Evan, who as the movie opens announces that he’s a proud citizen of Glenview, Ohio, a dutiful manager at the nearby Costco and a good neighbor devoted to civic duty and betterment.
Within a few swift opening scenes, “The Watch” establishes its premise: Evan’s Glenview, with its manicured lawns and well-tended cul-de-sac homes, epitomizes middle-class aspiration and security worth protecting — which Evan and his buddies do to clumsy and comic effect as they battle marauding, green-goo-spewing aliens.
Those same suburban values are also punch lines in “The Watch” — which features more than one well-timed Costco joke. Also played for laughs is Evan’s earnest multiculturalism, whereby he seeks out ethnically diverse friends to round out his otherwise white-bread existence.
But for the most part, “The Watch” hews to the age-old habit in Hollywood of representing what’s mainstream and “normal” in America as middle class — a notion of comfort, well-being and modest prosperity that, with median family income plummeting by the day as wealth inequality soars, looks more like a product of wishful thinking than 21st-century reality.
Oddly enough, a far more timely and candid snapshot of Americans’ current economic lives can be found in a depiction of extreme affluence — albeit caught in one hot mess of a downslide. “The Queen of Versailles,” Lauren Greenfield’s captivating documentary that also opens Friday, chronicles the life and times of Jackie and David Siegel, an astronomically rich couple who, as the film opens, are in the process of building the country’s biggest single-family house (90,000 square feet, 13 bedrooms, 30 bathrooms, two tennis courts — you know, just a little place to call home).
Through an accident of timing, Greenfield filmed “The Queen of Versailles” just as the economic meltdown hit, so what might have been a deliciously voyeuristic exercise in schadenfreude transforms into a fascinating, if outsize, example of the financial decline that has gripped so many less-fortunate citizens since 2008.
At one point Jackie — a curvaceous 40-ish blonde who is devoted to her eight kids and 74-year-old husband — visits her modest home town of Binghamton, N.Y., where her onetime best friend describes their teenage years as “typical middle class.” Jackie, who has just flown commercial for the first time in years, gives her friend a hug and compliments her on her home, a veritable shoebox in comparison with the Siegels’ palatial mansion in one of Florida’s gated communities.