Reviewer’s Rating: ★ ★
Suburban paranoia can be as funny as it can be dangerous. But in “The Watch,” which was renamed from “Neighborhood Watch” to distance itself from the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida, the threat to an ordered Ohio town isn’t anything with contemporary resonance. It’s just aliens.
That’s the disappointing basis of “The Watch,” which unfolds not in a way that might have anything funny or enlightening to say about picket-fence fearfulness, but simply with conventional summer movie bombast.
Evan Troutwig (Ben Stiller) is as devoted to Glenville, Ohio, as Max Fischer was to Rushmore Academy. Though he and his wife (an underused Rosemarie DeWitt) are trying to have a kid, he puts most of his energy into the town through various community groups and his senior management position at Costco.
This is a particularly earnest Ben Stiller: “I don’t have any black friends yet, but I am on the market,” he says. But Evan’s enthusiasm is shattered when a friend and Costco security guard (Joseph A. Nunez) is mysteriously mauled overnight. When Evan makes neighborhood safety his new cause (his sweatshirt: “No More Murders”), his rally for support draws derision and only three volunteers.
They’re a motley lot: Bob, a father of a teenager looking for a guy’s night out (Vince Vaughn); Franklin, a police department-reject with a buzz cut and switchblade (Jonah Hill); and Jamarcus, a divorced, afroed Brit (the wry, poised Richard Ayoade, who directed the promising “Submarine” and nearly steals the movie).
At this point, Vaughn (“Wedding Crashers,” “Old School”) can claim suburbia to be his domain. No one better typifies the man-cave father, the 9-to-5er, the frat boy with a family.
Vaughn’s family man isn’t without parody (he introduces himself as “Bob with ‘B,’” chuckling mildly) but he’s undiminished by adulthood’s trappings, full of crazy-eyed brio and the manic positivity to, as he does in “The Watch,” design neighborhood watch jackets for the gang with a flaming, winged tiger icon.
Some will say the act is old, but Vaughn could do this as long as John Wayne played a cowboy, as far as I’m concerned. Watching him marvel at each layer of a Russian nesting doll, as he does here, is nearly worth the price of admission.
The crew is slow to develop, harassed by dismissive cops (a funny Will Forte) and egg-throwing high-schoolers. But they make some headway and eventually crack open the case: Aliens are invading Glenville.
Action and comedy are nearly always strange bedfellows, and “The Watch” is no exception. Introducing extraterrestrials puts the story on a familiar trajectory of chases and explosions filled with mock-tough guy slow motion. At this point, Jonah Hill pointing in slo-mo is getting a little tiresome.
“The Watch” was originally drafted by Jared Stern to be a younger, PG-13 movie with Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”) directing, but that changed when Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg and Justin Theroux rewrote it. Their raunchier tone has an almost paint-by-numbers feeling to it now, after better films like “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express.” Though many of the jokes land, some of them feel like a game of penis-related Mad Libs.
Directing is Akiva Schaffer, one third of the Lonely Island trio (Schaffer, Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone make a quick cameo) and a “Saturday Night Live” writer famous for the popular digital shorts. This is his second feature after 2007’s “Hot Rod,” and while he clearly has the ability to pull funny out of his cast, he doesn’t here show any visual and narrative distinction that separates him from the growing pack of comedy directors.
His most interesting choice is to make the aliens far more fearsome and detailed than a comedy would normally accommodate. Contortionist Doug Jones (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy”) plays the alien, a sci-fi realism that makes a few jokes funnier but ultimately highlight’s the film’s incongruities. (Better is the suspected alien, a creepy Billy Crudup.)
The mission of the neighborhood watch gang stresses their budding friendships, pulling them apart before pushing them back together. Or was that the plot of “21 Jump Street”? Maybe it was “Get Him to the Greek”? Hold on, could it have been “Paul”?