As I walked out of a showing of The Watch, I found myself wondering how a movie showcasing so much talent could be so aggressively mediocre and unfunny. Akiva Shaffer, one-third of the fantastic The Lonely Island and director of the criminally underrated Hot Rod, takes on directing duties; the screenplay comes from Seth Rogen and Evan Golberg; and the film stars Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade – all actors who have proven themselves capable of being hilarious in at least one or two roles in their careers. This again begs the question: How the hell is The Watch not the funniest movie of the past five years, and furthermore, why is it so goddamn boring?
I’m not trying to be cute by posing a hypothetical question, either. I really want to know how so much talent with such varied comedic sensibilities can come together to create something as utterly bland and forgettable as The Watch. I don’t even want to call this movie a train wreck, because at least train wrecks are entertaining. It’s like someone watched last year’s Attack the Block and then decided to create a suburban American remake without any suspense or comedy.
Anyone who has seen the commercials for this abortion already knows the basic contours of the plot. Ben Stiller, in uptight, neurotic mode, forms a neighborhood watch in his little Midwestern suburb on the eve of an alien invasion. The group is rounded out by Vince Vaughn in full-on alcoholic manchild mode, Jonah Hill as a psychotic, insecure variation of Seth Rogen’s character in Observe and Report, and Richard Ayoade as a gawky, oddball Brit.
So, that’s the set-up: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade form up to stop roving bands of body snatching aliens from raiding their local Costco. And that’s a perfectly fine starting point. But then the filmmakers go nowhere with it.
Maybe only a third of the 100 minute runtime of The Watch actually deals with invading aliens. Most of the movie follows the four leads as they sit around drinking beer and bitching about their personal lives. The movie dedicates a significant amount of time to a subplot involving Ben Stiller’s character being sterile and another subplot in which Vaughn’s character attempts to keep his teenage daughter from losing her virginity to her scumbag boyfriend, but these tangents never effectively tie back into the alien invasion story. They just stop the movie dead in its tracks. Every fifteen minutes or so, an alien will turn up and the story descends into science fiction territory again, and then immediately afterward, the characters go back to drinking beer and talking about their personal problems. It’s like watching two completely different films that were spliced together poorly.
This begs another question: Why make a movie about a band of hapless losers fighting off an alien invasion if you’re not going to make a movie about an alien invasion? The Watch could have been equally great if it had been about a group of guys fighting off aliens or a group of guys drinking beer and trading dick jokes. The filmmakers here try to do both and end up failing on all fronts.
The Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen brand of observational humor just doesn’t jive with the scifi demands of the plot, and Akiva Schaffer isn’t up to the challenge of transitioning between the two types of comedy. The screenwriters have provided no structure to the story; half the scenes in the movie operate as if they’re nothing more than a series of sketches with no connective tissue holding them together. Most of the attempted jokes in the movie never land. Schaffer does pull off a couple of obligatory action scenes towards the end of the movie, but by that point, the film is unsalvageable. In the end, The Watch operates like a car with terrible transmission, awkwardly stopping and starting with each twist of the plot.
The most important lesson I think the filmmakers of The Watch should take away from this movie is that they should never work together again. Don’t get me wrong, this was an interesting experiment: taking members of three of the biggest comedic circles in Hollywood, throwing them into a blender, and seeing what came out. Represented in The Watch were members of the Will Ferrell/Vince Vaughn frat pack, Judd Apatow’s gang, and The Lonely Island guys, three groups with their own distinctive approaches to comedy and that haven’t shared much overlap. In isolation, I think these guys are awesome. The result of putting them together, however, was a terribly bland Hollywood product. From now on, maybe these guys should remain in their own comedic realms.