‘The Watch” was originally called “Neighborhood Watch,” but that title got scuttled after Trayvon Martin was shot to death by George Zimmerman in February. At the time, 20th Century Fox pulled back their marketing for the Ben Stiller comedy, but better they should have canned the whole thing. Bad timing is one thing — and “The Watch” has that in abundance. A bad movie is just insult upon injury.
It’s another one of those loud, penis-obsessed bro farces, lazily written (by actor Seth Rogen, among others) and haphazardly directed (by Akiva Schaffer, longtime “SNL” writer and part of the Lonely Island comedy team). Stiller is in standard uptight weenie mode as Evan, a suburban Costco manager who forms a neighborhood watch after the store’s security guard (Joe Nunez) is mysteriously killed. His crew consists of Obnoxious (Vince Vaughn as blue-collar Bob), Creepy (Jonah Hill as loner mama’s boy Franklin), and Weird (Richard Ayoade as Jamarcus, a chipper British nerd).
Evan wants to get down to business — he’s trying to avoid confronting his inability to have a child with wife Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) — but the other guys just want to party. The twist is that the neighborhood isn’t being plagued by scary teenagers wearing hoodies; it’s being attacked by alien invaders who kill humans and disguise themselves in their skins. Who’s an ET and who’s not? There’s a potent satire here about suburban paranoia that the movie stays as far away from as possible.
Half of “The Watch” seems to take place in Bob’s man-cave, and, really, the movie plays like Stiller invited his buddies over for more than a few beers. The script (if you can call it that) is singularly focused on the male crotch and the things that come out of it, and the stars improvise to their worst tendencies. This may be Vaughn’s most overbearing performance, and that’s saying something.
The other half of the movie mostly unfolds in and around Evan’s Costco, which makes it the most egregious example of corporate product placement since Tom Hanks shilled forFedEx in “Cast Away.” (Even the company’s advertising catch phrase gets a shout-out.) “The Watch” is as depressingly generic and hollow as that setting, and the few cast members who appear to be trying — DeWitt, Billy Crudup as a spooky neighbor who’s, like, gay or something — are punished for their trouble.
I mentioned bad timing: The movie works its way to a showdown with the alien hordes in a manner that couldn’t be in poorer taste at this cultural moment. First we see the socially maladroit Franklin lead his friends to his bedroom, where he keeps a massive stash of automatic weapons and pistols under his bed. Then the crew heads to Costco for a mock-heroic shooting spree, the characters unloading fusillades of ordnance with orgiastic slo-mo bliss. Forgive me for not enjoying such witlessness when 12 people lie dead in Aurora, Colo. I know, I know, it’s a “stoopid” summer comedy, they’re firing at aliens, not humans, but if you don’t think the glorification of sheer firepower isn’t part of the problem, you’re living under a rock. I doubt we’ll ever have sane thinking about guns in this country, but it wouldn’t hurt to start with the movies.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.