The Akiva Shaffer-directed The Watch sort of slipped under the radar, overshadowed by blockbusters such as The Dark Knight Rises. It certainly didn’t help that it received a modicum of bad publicity in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida, compelling Fox to change the film’s name, excising the “Neighborhood” from the film’s title and thus eliminating the title’s association with the events in the film. It’s a minor change, yet indicative of Hollywood’s odd reactionary responses to real life events.
The alien invasion comedy, written by Jared Stern and subsequently made into a more adult-oriented film by comic mainstays Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogan, follows the exploits of Evan (Ben Stiller), an uptight resident of a small suburban Ohio city whose lack of friends and desire to be loved compels him to form numerous clubs and social cliques while working his way to the top of the Costco ladder.
After the death of an overnight security guard by an unseen intruder, Evan forms a neighborhood watch. He is joined by Bob (Vince Vaughn), a doting parent constantly at odds with his daughter and her rebellious teenage lifestyle; Franklin (Jonah Hill), an emotionally disturbed man bitter over failing the police academy; and Franklin (Richard Ayoade), a timid Brit who fulfills Evan’s goal of finding a black friend. Throughout the course of their duties, they discover that aliens have infiltrated their home town, prompting them to go on the offensive.
Unlike many traditional comedies that start strong and peter off into more serious territory, The Watch takes a different tack. As the characters and conflicts are established, it takes awhile to get into an appropriate groove; many of the seemingly improvised jokes fall flat, with the characters attempting to gain their footing. At first it seems tedious, particularly Vince Vaughn’s character Bob, an overgrown child compelled to take on the role of a parent due to a constantly traveling wife. As the film progresses, his schtick gets tempered, due in part to both the impending threat of an alien invasion and the development of his relationship with his daughter.
The remaining cast is stellar, with Hill’s semi-stoic and dog-in-the-headlights approach working well with Vaughn’s frenetic childishness, and Ayoade’s deadpan delivery providing perfect comedic timing as each character plays off on the other’s strengths. The only one who falls flat is Stiller, forced to play the straight man in a comedy that features some of today’s best comedic actors. Any attempt at humor is merely Stiller being Stiller. Thankfully, his supporting cast, along with the help of Will Forte as a bumbling cop that has little respect for the neighborhood watch, manages to fill in the gaps left by Stiller.
Although the film’s humor is sustained through its incredibly diverse and hilarious characters, the plot itself, however straightforward it may be, is exceedingly clever, featuring enough twists, turns, and emotional tugging of the heartstrings to make it more than just a vehicle for whacky antics and dick and fart jokes. By the time things get real for the group, all of the actors have settled into their characters, with the third act taking the film from a “just ok” comedy featuring sporadic laughs to a full-out gut-busting romp through the bowels of a Costco. The Watch may take a bit to get going, but once it’s does, it’s hilarious.