The Watch - movie review
Who's saying what
It’s rare that you can pinpoint the moment when an entire style of film-making dies. Back in 2005 Judd Apatow created a new kind of American comedy with The 40 Year Old Virgin, one where letting the actors riff around ideas for scenes was more important than moving the story forward. Okay, maybe 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy got there first. Really, it doesn’t matter who started it: The Watch has ended it once and for all.
Even two years ago this would have seemed like a winner: get a bunch of well-liked comedy actors together and let them muck around on-camera. Have a story going on too, of course – neighbourhood watch ends up fighting aliens, sounds good – but the good-natured mucking around is what people are going to come to see. Ben Stiller can play an uptight control freak who’s just vulnerable enough to be likable, Vince Vaughn can play a brash party guy who’s just vulnerable enough to be likable, Jonah Hill can play Jonah Hill, and that guy who plays Moss on The I.T. Crowd can play Moss from The I.T. Crowd. Everybody loves those guys!
The first bum note comes with the product placement for Costco. Stiller’s character is a manager there and he’s inspired to form a neighbourhood watch after the security guard there is mysteriously torn apart. This is all fair enough but why does it have to take place at a Costco? Couldn’t they just make up a fake giant shopping warehouse instead of making half the movie feel like a giant commercial? Since when has making your movie feel like a commercial been funny?
Having the entire cast play the exact same characters they always do might not have been a problem if those characters were given something new to do, but once the neighbourhood watch gets together they just spend their time hanging out and riffing. Clearly the joke is that there’s no crime for them to worry about – apart from some teenagers who throw eggs at them – but if the joke is going to be that they’re sitting around cracking jokes it might be a good idea to not have all the other scenes be about them sitting around and cracking pretty much the same kind of jokes.
Eventually, things start to happen. They find a mysterious ball that turns out to be some kind of space lazer gun. They find an actual alien. They take photos of themselves with a dead alien (which is pretty funny). They find a reason for the watch to split up so they can reunite for the big fight at the end. There’s a big fight at the end. There are exactly two plot points that could count as twists, and neither of them could be considered even slightly surprising. There’s a joke about people repeatedly shooting an alien corpse over and over and over that feels like some kind of metaphor for the way this film drags everything out expecting it to get funnier as it goes along. Only it doesn’t.
The really disappointing thing about all this is that a lot of the back-and-forth banter could be pretty good if it was in another, sharper film (like scriptwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s earlier and way more successful action send-up Pineapple Express). Everyone here knows how to come up with a funny line, and they all do a decent job of selling the lines they come up with. But director Akiva Schaffer (from comedy trio The Lonely Island, who has a very memorable cameo appearance in a circle jerk) dumps them in a film that does them no favours, with scene after scene that seems to take forever to get to the point, only to have that point turn out to mean not much at all past the excuse for some toilet jokes.
This doesn’t work as a character comedy because the characters are tired and stale. This doesn’t work as an action movie because there’s hardly any action. This doesn’t work as an alien invasion movie because the movie doesn’t seem to care about making the aliens interesting or threatening. This doesn’t work as a send-up of alien invasion movies because it doesn’t even bother trying to do that. This doesn’t work as the touching tale of a man reconnecting with his teenage daughter or another man coping with his infertility and his fear of revealing it to his wife because that stuff feels totally tacked on to the main plot.
What this does manage to do is totally kill off the idea of building a slack, lazy movie around a bunch of name brand comedians just turning up and doing the same old same old. Because after The Watch, no-one in their right mind is going to want to watch that.