Day 138: The Watch

"Did anyone else here cry themselves to sleep last night?"

If The Watch suffers from too much of any one thing, it's laziness. What could have been a truly inspired comedy ends up becoming an exercise in famous people falling back into their comfort zone and doing the same thing that they've been doing for years. That's not to say that there aren't some genuinely funny things in the film, it's just that the laughs run out about seventy minutes into a one hundred minute film, leaving the audience to wonder why the film switches genres in the home stretch.

Let me back up for a minute. For those of you that don't know, The Watch is a comedy co-written by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, the team behind Superbad, and directed by Akiva Schaffer, one-third of the comedy trio Lonely Island, and director of 2007's supremely underrated Hot Rod. In other words, it's got pretty decent comedic pedigree, depending upon how your sensibilities skew. Ben Stiller plays Evan, a suburban everyman who spends more time starting up clubs than he does with his sex-starved wife (Rosemarie DeWitt). He manages the local Costco, and when his night watchman turns up dead one night, Evan vows to find the killer by forming a neighborhood watch. His call for recruits falls on mostly deaf ears, and only three other dudes show up for reasons that vary wildly, but nevertheless, the quartet rally together to take back their neighborhood from a criminal element.

The other members of the crew are Bob (Vince Vaughn, playing a variation on his character from Old School) a dad who's major motivation seems to be to have a good time; Franklin (Jonah Hill, at his thinnest) a psychopath who failed to become a cop, so now seeks to be a vigilante; and Jamarcus (Richard Ayaode from The IT Crowd) a British divorcee looking for kinky adventures with Asian housewives.

If you've seen the commercials or trailers, you know that they quickly stumble upon an imminent alien invasion seemingly born out of sheer laziness. Honestly, there were so many directions they could have gone, and the alien thing is just about the least interesting variation on the "social outcasts become saviors" film that this ends up becoming. Making the threat an outside force like aliens is a total copout. I know that this film was in the can long before the incident in Florida that forced the title change, but imagine how much more incendiary and incisive the film could have been if the killer(s) had been someone that couldn't handle the mundanity of suburban life that these men had embraced. The issue, ultimately, falls on the writers for not being imaginative enough to tackle anything other than rote science fiction/comedy summer crowd-pleaser, and the film ends up as none of those things.

As for the cast, it was nice to see Vaughn back in the mode that made him famous in the first place, but even he looks bored with the material that he was given, particularly in the film's third act. Ayoade also acquits himself nicely, playing an outsider just trying to fit in. Among the bit players, Will Forte is hilarious as a small-town bumpkin cop & Billy Crudup is fantastic in a miniscule role as Evan's creepy neighbor.

The major issue with the casting falls squarely on Stiller's shoulders. Stiller is a good enough comedian to understand the role of the straight man, yet he never plays one effectively. The last time he decently played the straight man was in There's Something About Mary, and even then he had his moments where he couldn't help himself. Stiller's problem is that he's never the funniest one in any given scene, yet he doesn't trust himself enough to let other people get the laugh, and he constantly has to overplay moments and go for the laugh. If a comedian is being reigned in and directed well, they can be the best of the best to play the straight man.

One of the best examples of a comedian brilliantly playing the straight man is Robin Williams in The Birdcage. He sets everyone else up amazingly and underplays all of his scenes (except the "eclectic celebration of dance" scene). Stiller just doesn't understand what the function of the straight man is (although he doesn't really get it in the other direction either. For a prime example of this, see his endless mugging in Dodgeball, which featured a brilliant straight man in his co-star from this film, Vince Vaughn).

By sheer virtue, Jonah Hill ends up being odd man out here. He's not given enough to do to really stand out, and the handful of big moments he does have fail to land effectively. Bottom line, his role wasn't very well written, and he flounders as a result.

If you've seen both the red band and green band trailers for the film, you've seen virtually every funny scene in it. The handful of funny moments that aren't in those, all of which involve Vaughn, Forte or Crudup, aren't worth your ten bucks just to see. If you're a diehard, go for it, but lower your expectations. A lot. And for god's sake, can we put an end to the "white guys strutting in slow motion to hip-hop" trend once and for all? Schaffer likes that bit so much he includes it at least three times here. It's pretty played out at this point, and just goes towards proving my point about the laziness on display in this film. There's no greater sin for a film than having wasted potential, and this film has got that in spades.

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