Riff Her to Shreds
The shooting death of Trayvon Martin had two immediate, ridiculous ripple effects in pop culture. First, the hoodie surpassed the suicide vest as Earth's most unpopular fashion statement. Okay, maybe there's something to that: looking at the Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol poster, I still can't figure out if Tom Cruise is intent on saving the world or sizing me up for a mugging. Second, Twentieth Century Fox changed the name of its mid-summer comedy, Neighborhood Watch, to, simply, The Watch--the idea being to not remind audiences of the organization with which Martin's killer was affiliated.*
Maybe this was over-sensitivity on the studio's part, or maybe it was a ploy to drum up interest in their movie. Whatever the case, the bogus controversy is the most interesting thing about Akiva Schaffer's film, which plays like a mash-up of The 'Burbs and Ghostbusters, with aliens subbing in for spirits. It's a shame, too, because the cast is top-notch, the special effects are first-rate, and the movie looks great.
The problem lies squarely with the screenplay, which, I imagine, is more of an outline. If Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Jared Stern actually wrote this thing, they should be commended and then blacklisted. Huge portions of The Watch feel as improvised as a Christopher Guest movie. But Guest has original stories to tell, in interesting ways, and he knows what to cut in order to preserve their flow. This film's momentum halts every five minutes so its stars can compete in a series of protracted riff-offs. Some of the improv works; a lot of it doesn't. And the flimsy plot can't support such an imbalance.
The movie's unscripted qualities also show through in the massive amount of profanity jumping off the screen. I'm no prude, but there's a world of difference between, say, Quentin Tarantino's melodically blue dialogue and a bunch of guys peppering their mental spitballs with unearned, enthusiastic "fuck"s. The Watch is PG-13 material at best, and the sloppy language is as off-putting as an eleven-year-old interrupting a dinner party with vagina jokes.
Were this a focused comedy aimed at adults, the movie might have really been something. Ben Stiller stars as Evan, a Costco manager living in a comfortable, upper-middle-class bubble. He and his wife, Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), want desperately to start a family, but fertility issues get in the way. Evan uses his copious free time to form clubs and activity groups in the community, and his voiceover narration goes a long way in establishing the sheer whiteness of his circumstances. The fact that this is an alien invasion picture leaves the door wide open for metaphors about racial discomfort and the idea of impending cultural change. After the first fifteen minutes, all that high-falutin' stuff is booted in favor of exploding cows and gags involving extraterrestrial semen.
Following the horrific, mysterious death of one of his employees, Evan forms a neighborhood watch. Only three people show up to his first meeting: Franklin (Jonah Hill), a squirrelly kid who went from police-officer-wannabe to vigilante psycho; Bob (Vince Vaughn), a developmentally arrested loudmouth who wants nothing more than to bond with some guys in his pimped-out "man cave"; and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), a recent British transplant to Ohio who's looking to make friends. The nutty quartet stumbles upon an intergalactic takeover plot that only occasionally feels more important than debates over peeing in cars, the novelty of Russian nesting dolls, and logo concepts for their team jackets.
The screenwriters throw a lot more into the mix, including a pair of bumbling cops; a high school punk intent on deflowering Bob's daughter; and a weird neighbor who moves in across the street from Evan. Any one of these would have made a compelling "A" story. Instead, they're relegated to interesting set-ups that get shoehorned into the alien attack plot. It's a shame, too, because the actors playing these thankless supporting roles are terrific. As the insecure Sgt. Bressman, Will Forte has the film's single biggest laugh (it's a paranoid jab at American citizenship that happens way too early).
The Watch's greatest delight is that Billy Cruddup plays the strange neighbor. His sinister playfulness, of course, turns out to be the opposite of what the characters suspect. But every time he popped up, I hoped to God that he'd turn out to be a serial killer or something--and that Schaffer would make a truly bold move by upending his film's premise entirely.
Note to Warner Brothers: If you ever grow some balls and decide to film a live-action adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns, look no further for your Joker.
Speaking of balls, did I mention that the aliens' brains are located between their legs? Twenty bucks says you can't guess whether or not someone busts out a "sounds like a typical man" joke.** It makes sense that the creatures' minds wouldn't be centrally located: their plot to build a giant radio tower for broadcasting a "Come 'N Get It!" message to their awaiting armada feels a bit sketchy. It's the same problem I had with the critters from Cowboys & Aliens, who also had the ability to forge world-smashing weaponry and interstellar spacecraft--yet got tripped up by long-distance phone calls.
Adding further insult: though the alien hordes are largely computer-generated, their movements were created by physical artiste extraordinaire, Doug Jones. You can see flashes of Jones' trademark grace (particularly in the monster's fingers), but there's so little screen time devoted to the creatures--outside of random thrashing, running, and drooling, that it's often hard to imagine any human influence in their development. The design is also lacking, a cross between Pumpkinhead, a Predator, and...those things from Cowboys & Aliens.
As for the main cast, your enjoyment of their performances will likely depend on how you feel about their previous work. If you like Vaughn doing his routine from Old School, pumped to the nines, you'll likely be entertained. If Stiller's good-intentioned-whiner character made you giggle in Meet the Parents, you're in good hands. I'm a fan, but If neither of those sounds appealing, you're better off looking elsewhere.
Ayoade is the stand out, adding a spark simply by being British and weird (for a better sense of what he brings to comedy, run--don't walk--to The IT Crowd). When he's not speaking or running from something, though, he floats awkwardly in the background; the look on his face suggests he's either A) nervous about being in his first big-time Hollywood production, or B) in shock at how lame his first big-time Hollywood production turned out to be. And his character's being essentially reduced to the Ernie Hudson role once the shit hits the fan should be a prosecutable act.
Despite my many problems with The Watch, I laughed a lot--not always for the right reasons, and not nearly enough to recommend this as a theatrical experience. The filmmakers should have done the hard work of ironing out a simple, interesting story that's wrapped in great comedy, rather than trying to make a billion pieces of pasta stick to the writers' room wall. The talented guys from The Lonely Island (of which Schaffer is a member) make a cameo in an orgy scene as three stoned hipsters taking turns jerking each other off. Intentional or not, it's the perfect metaphor for this screenplay. It turns out the studio put more effort into re-brand their movie following a tragedy than the people whose job it was to make a piece of art worth protecting.
*I guess the third bit of fall-out was the changing of the film's poster, which went from a cool twist on the traditional "Neighborhood Watch" sign to a boring four-shot of the principal actors--all of whom look like they were flown in from other, better projects to help with damage control.
**We didn't shake on it.