Not much about “The Watch” is surprising, though whether that’s good or bad depends on your view. The sophomorically dirty R-rated comedy has performances by Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade that are approximately what you’d expect from those actors, playing characters not far from their comfort zones. (Ayoade, the least famous of the four in the U.S., comes from the U.K.’s “The IT Crowd.”) The screenplay, originally by Jared Stern, was revamped by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (“Superbad”), as is evident in the many, many, many penis-related jokes. The director, Akiva Schaffer (“Hot Rod”), is one-third of the hip-nerd troupe Lonely Island, whose other two components are Jorma Taccone and Andy Samberg.
There. That’s not even a review, but I bet you already know whether you want to see it.
At any rate, “The Watch” has Stiller playing Evan, a button-down Costco manager who loves his suburban home of Glenview, Ohio, the way “Parks and Recreation’s” Leslie Knope loves Pawnee, Ind. Evan forms clubs, attends city council meetings, and cheers at high school football games. Apart from being thus far unable to have a baby with his sweet wife, Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), Evan is perfectly content in his little corner of the world.
Then a grisly murder is committed in his Costco, and Evan forms a neighborhood watch to protect what remains of the community’s innocence. Joining him are Bob (Vaughn), an excitable everyman with a well-stocked rec room; Franklin (Hill), an intense failed cop who refers to the neighborhood watch as a “militia”; and Jamarcus (Ayoade), a horny, recently divorced fellow with impeccable manners. The four set out to patrol the town while also enjoying some male bonding, by which I mean drinking beer and talking about penises.
What we suspect early on, and what is confirmed by the watchmen a bit later in the story than I would have expected, is that aliens are involved. This is a sci-fi comedy, as it turns out, and not a bad one as far as that goes. It’s far more interested in being good comedy than in being good science fiction, and doesn’t try to spoof the genre’s conventions — it’s a comedy that happens to have supernatural elements — but the action flows smoothly and the special effects are functional.
The four leads are funny, separately and together, flinging invective at one another and engaging in absurd conversations about, for example, how best to disguise one of them so as to enter a suspicious old man’s house. The discovery that extra-terrestrials are involved makes them even more frazzled and paranoid, which is also good for laughs. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed Vaughn this much since “Wedding Crashers” — seven years ago! — and I get the sense he hasn’t enjoyed himself this much in a long time either. Ayoade, blessed with excellent timing and delivery, should be a bigger star Stateside than he is. Even Jonah Hill, not normally prone to stretching himself, does well playing a character who’s slightly more off-kilter and less of a slacker than usual.
Stiller is good, too, but he’s often stuck in the role of straight man, and is so tamped-down that you wish he’d get the chance to flip out a little. One flaw is that his character, initially the level-headed voice of reason, becomes an idiot like the others without any transition — a fault of the writing, probably, but it makes it hard to get a read on what type of person Evan is. His baby-making subplot feels extraneous, as does the entire character of his wife, for that matter. Franklin and Jamarcus are unmarried, and Bob’s wife is unseen until the very end, when she appears briefly and has no lines. This boys’ club has little use for women, not when there’s so much raucous swaggering and dim-bulb buffoonery to carry out.
B (1 hr., 38 min.; )