No matter how hard you want to, you can’t engineer another Ghostbusters. The guys who made the first one didn’t even try to do it when given the opportunity, and Ivan Reitman on his lonesome certainly couldn’t do it. Ghostbusters is a special kind of movie, one where supremely talented folks came together to tell an original story because they wanted to — not because they were paid to or because they wanted to emulate the popularity of something else.
The Watch, on the other hand, is what happens when a group of talented people work with material with hackwork inextricably festering in its DNA.
The premise itself is solid — community busybody and Costco manager Evan (Ben Stiller) forms a neighborhood watch organization after the security guard at his store is brutally murdered. It’s the 21st century and nobody does anything, so the only people who sign up are an overprotective dad and good bro (Vince Vaughn), a mentally unstable police academy reject (Jonah Hill) and a polite British divorcee (Richard Ayoade) — a ragtag group who are a bit more focused on drinking beers in Vaughn’s man-cave than going out on interminable stakeouts.
Rounded out by Will Forte and Mel Rodriguez as antagonistic cops, Billy Crudup as a sexually threatening neighbor and Rosemarie DeWitt as Evan’s wife, the best part of The Watch is its cast, who are endlessly watchable, though on their own nobody’s exactly a standout. Stiller plays his stock neurotic straight man role which, as always, is nothing to write home about but remains a necessary element. Hill could have stood to do a lot more with his character’s mental state, but he has good chemistry with Vaughn, who for the first time in his career approaches somewhere in the realm of cuddly and lovable. And it’s always a joy to see Ayoade do anything, but unfortunately he doesn’t get very much to do in this film. Hardly heart-stopping roles individually, but together they end up being more than the sum of their parts as one might expect from four great comedic actors playing off of one another.
Eventually, amidst some drunken tomfoolery and a couple botched patrol nights, the quartet come to find out that aliens are invading their modest Ohio town and posing as human beings. The film doesn’t seem very interested in spending a whole lot of time on the threat of alien invasion or the fact that their neighbors might be aliens in favor of the more mundane aspects of the characters’ lives, so anything involving Doug Jones (!) in a creature suit feels like an afterthought.
Originally titled Neighborhood Watch*, the project was conceived as a teen-friendly PG-13 comedy under producer Shawn Levy (I’ll let his filmography speak for itself) to be directed by men like David Dobkin and Peter Segal, at some point it was decided that they should maybe get in on that Judd Apatow money and hire dudes who could write a good dick joke.
Those dudes were Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, to whom a Ghostbusters-y film like The Watch is totally up their alley. They’re clearly comedy nerds in their own right; Ghostbusters is a film that combines a genius high concept with serious laughs. But the thing about Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis’ script is that it’s so loosey-goosey with actual plotting that there’s room for the kind of laugh-out-loud comedy (read: constant Bill Murray ad-libbing) that made the film stand out. It’s something the pair also attempted in The Green Hornet, albeit with more success. With The Watch, they’re basically doing a rewrite job to make some hacky script a little less so. The result is something that rests firmly between original comedy and some asshole’s formulaic spec script, so it attempts nothing new but features some good jokes.
Behind the camera is Akiva Schaffer, who does decent work with what he’s given. As one third of The Lonely Island and the man who directed the genius-before-its-time Hot Rod**, one expects more of an anarchic, playful film than something as comparatively subdued as The Watch. He and his Lonely Island cohorts take part in a three-way masturbation cameo that certainly signals a much weirder movie than what came out, so I’m seriously hoping Schaffer took this job as a stepping stone to create a much weirder future film.
I’d hardly call The Watch a waste of time by any stretch, but it’s not nearly as good as the apparent talent would signal or any knowledgeable viewer should expect. At best it’s good for a laugh, a pleasant enough 90 minute distraction for cinematic comedy lovers. In other words, if you’ve already seen 21 Jump Street, you’re probably ready to kill some time with The Watch.
There are some deleted scenes that are decent for a laugh, a gag reel, a featurette of interview footage about what the cast and crew would do if an alien invasion happened, and a mock interview with the lead alien from the movie. Nothing necessarily making this release worth the money if you’ve already seen it and aren’t currently trying to decide if you want to buy it at a Big Lots.
*The project was originally titled Neighborhood Watch, but the Trayvon Martin shooting apparently made Fox marketing a bit nervous. To be honest, I’m not sure I would have ever made the connection between a frivolous comedy and a real-life tragedy.
**I’m not kidding — Hot Rod was unjustly ignored as another post-Anchorman ironic mustache comedy, but in light of the Lonely Island’s success you should give it a watch and see what people who perform karaoke renditions of “I’m on a Boat” missed out on four years earlier.