High Concepts and Low Humor: ‘The Watch’

“Hey, don’t forget the dick jokes…”

That’s the mantra that had to be coming from director Akiva Shaffer as he guided his competent cast through the paycheck cashing motions of The Watch. Originally bestowed with a “Neighborhood” tag, the entire film feels refashioned, and not because of some notorious vigilante/murder case. No, as a Summer starring vehicle for three audience faves – Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill – what was once a high concept, family friendly story about suburban guys taking on an alien invasion has become a half-assed combination of scatology, F-bombs, and numerous nods to the knob. When the cast aren’t riffing on body parts, body functions, and extraterrestrial organs, they’re adlibbing like madmen, trying to make this mess of a movie funny. It doesn’t work.

It would be interesting to see what the first script fleshed out by screenwriter Jared Stern actually looks like. One can only imagine the doctoring duo of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg throwing caution, and a few fatties, to the wind while coming up with their “improvements.” What we wind up with is another homage heavy exercise in self-congratulation, the narrative hitting on high points like Ghostbusters, The ‘Burbs, and even Uncle Buck. On the downside, none of the references really help. In fact, what they do is remind us of how the Reagan era version of the high concept worked. Everything back then was done in service of the premise. Now, we’ve got a trio of known names more or less embarrassing themselves. Only British comedian and cinematic newcomer Richard Ayoade redeems himself, and even then, his presence is more of a gimmick than anything else.

The story centers around Evan Trautwig (Stiller), a misguided resident of a fictional Ohio subdivision. He’s the classic community overachiever, constantly starting clubs and ordering the other citizens around. When an employee at the Costco he manages meets a grisly fate, our hero decides to start a Neighborhood Watch. This draws the attention of Bob Finnerty (Vaughn), a fumbling father anxious over this teen daughter’s love life, Franklin (Hill), a manboy rejected by the local police academy, and Jamarcus (Ayoade), a recently divorced UK transplant. Almost immediately, the quartet stumble upon the fact that the perpetrator wasn’t human, but an alien of sorts. Even more disturbing is the discovery that the spaceman are preparing for an all out invasion. Knowing that few will believe them, our guardians decide to save the planet. Thing don’t go quite as planned.

Like oil and water, science and religion, and brains and reality TV stardom, the divergent elements of The Watch just don’t mix. For every off color gag that brings a minor smile to your face, there are endless minutes of mind-numbing stupidity. In fact, it’s safe to say that this is the most disjointed, joyless experience of 2012. Instead of capping off a successful July with a humorous send-off, Stiller and the gang leave us feeling conned and cranky. We expect more here than a mere Judd Apatow meets ET vibe. Sure, the gross out gags and occasional expletives tend to work, but not because they arrive organically through character or circumstance. Like a random fart in church, we chuckle because of the shock value…and like said sacrilegious passing of gas, the offense lingers long after the laughter has died down.

Again, Ayoade appears to be the only one who understands the idea of earning his comic keep. He doesn’t fly off the handle or go to scenery chewing extremes like the rest of the cast. Vaughn in particular appears so distressed, so anxious to make something, anything click, that he ends up shooting several sad blanks. Hill eventually finds his niche, delivering a few decent jokes toward the end. As for Stiller, he’s stuck in the role of straight man. We’re supposed to slightly sympathize with Evan, since his heart is in the right place even if his head derails him every now and again. There’s also a flawed fertility subtext that does little except make the character seem even more of a mensch that he already is (and let’s not even get into the throwaway part given to Rosemarie DeWitt as his wife).

In fact, it’s weird that The Watch has so little do with women. Bob’s daughter is viewed as a desirable young adolescent, but her boy of choice is such an obviously plot point red herring that we never get the feeling that she’s in real danger. We “get” that he will be nothing more than a storyline speed bump. The same goes for the guys hanging out in the man cave. No discussion of porn. No conversation about “guy” gratuity (Ayoade gets a single joke about sex). Instead, this is all about bros being boring, about tossing out set-ups without a single significant punchline. Even worse, the movie makes up its mythology in ways that strain our suspension of disbelief. So, our concerned citizens know that forces from outside our galaxy our out to destroy Earth. Yet when a character acts more than superhuman, there’s no suspicion aimed in his direction? Really?

Unlike The Pineapple Express, which was a semi-successful amalgamation of several specific genre tropes, The Watch doesn’t work. It’s not high concept enough to engage our sense of wonder and relies too heavily on low brow humor to work outside such a style. Had it gone over the top and into the extremes, treating the material like the outrageous gross-out experience it pretends to be, we might have something worth celebrating. Even better, had the initial family film approach been supported, we’d have another innocuous Cineplaceholder.

Instead, we’ve got a frat boys version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with a bit of Family Guy thrown in for good measure. The results remind us of why, sometimes, filmmaking by committee doesn’t work. You can see the various outside influences clouding what The Watch wants to do. That is never comes together is as predictable as the plotting, dick jokes be damned.

RATING 3 / 10