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Family Movie Review: The Watch (R)

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MPAA Rating: R     Length: 98 minutes

Appropriate for ages 15+. Crude and gross in the manner of, well, just about everything aimed at or appealing to adolescent boys and their twenty-something counterparts. That means pervasive profanity and elaborate sexual and “bathroom” humor; drug and alcohol abuse, some by minors; brief nudity and both explicit and implied sexual activity; and graphic violence against humans, aliens and the odd farm animal.

The Watch is chock full of quality shtick, but it’s so enamored of its stars’ comic chops that it sometimes forgets to move things along.

By Jared Peterson

When folks like Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughan and Jonah Hill appear on screen, especially together, one expects a certain level of deft comic riffing. The Watch doesn’t disappoint in that area, but it might disappoint because of that area. These three marquis talents give their all but are given perhaps too much license, and they take their improvisational styles close to the edge of tolerability.

Playing the straight man, of course, Stiller is Evan, a well-meaning control freak whose life is built around managing the local Costco and self-made extracurriculars like jogging and book clubs. When a coworker is brutally murdered, Evan forms a neighborhood watch with some other average Joes: Bob (Vince Vaughn, his banter setting on “rapid fire”), a contractor with time on his hands and a tricked-out man-cave; and Francis (a far subtler Jonah Hill), a short-fused gun nut. Joining them as the odd man out is Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade, a neglected talent from Britain TV and movies), a nerdy beanpole with some naughty ideas about loose damsels in distress. When evidence begins to point to an extraterrestrial menace rather than a suburban crime wave, they take it in stride, shifting their bumbling aggression toward the alien invaders and saving their subdivision and the world in one fell swoop.

The Watch has a killer comic crew behind the camera as well as in front of it. First, there’s Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the dirty minds behind Superbad and Pineapple Express, who cowrote the screenplay with Jared Stern. Then there’s director Akiva Schaffer, a “Saturday Night Live” writer who with Jorma Taccone and Andy Samberg is responsible for many of that show’s wickedly sharp and now-iconic Digital Shorts. (Look for the trio in a brief, gross cameo.) Schaffer arguably has the most difficult job on the film: to choose when or if to cut away from the clever back-and-forth served up by both writers and actors. Unfortunately, he drops the ball on several occasions, allowing the stars to lob line after line at each other well after a more disciplined director or improv coach would say, “Annnnnd scene”. The quality and sheer volume of comic repartee has a double edge—sometimes the audience expects a joke and none appears. Other scenes end abruptly, as though someone in the edit bay suddenly noticed the clock.

None of this is to suggest that Stiller, Vaughn and Hill aren’t reliably brilliant at what they do—fans of any or all of these stars will get more than their money’s worth of their signature shtick. But one can’t help thinking that, given the talent involved, The Watch might have been like Ghostbusters, or at least like last year’s import Attack the Block, where the actors mostly play it straight within a cohesive blend of real-life and fantasy. Instead, it’s more like Pineapple Express, with a flimsy, meandering plot serving mainly as a platter for heaping helpings of the actors’ and filmmakers’ favorite antics.

Now, to briefly address the pygmy elephant in the room: in the wake of a tragic incident in Florida involving the killing of a young man by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, concerns arose about the appropriateness of the advertising or even releasing the film. Even with a change of title, it’s safe to say that if this movie didn’t involve space aliens, it’d probably be sitting on a shelf right now. The parallels are superficial and mostly involve Jonah Hill’s Francis—a police academy reject with a cache of firearms and a chip on his shoulder. It’s certainly a little harder to laugh at this caricature knowing that some version of it might exist in the real life. But most viewers will recognize that similarities between these characters and actual people are purely coincidental, and sit back and enjoy a welcome break from the deadly seriousness that will surely still be around when you’re done.

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