“Let’s keep it 1950s, kids,” Vince Vaughn‘s character says to his teenage daughter and her prom date in Akiva Schaffer‘s The Watch. That sentiment could be applied to the film’s cherished values, and the characters’ drive to protect the most boring of places: the suburbs. The suburbs are where white flew after African-Americans began moving into the cities, and now it’s a safe haven where nothing happens or will ever happen. The paradox of The Watch is in seeing the heroes (played by Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade) go on a comic adventure to keep the status quo. But in the dull trappings of Schaffer’s bland direction, Stiller’s killjoy character, and Ayoade’s wasted talented, there’s no comedy or thrills to be found. It’s a movie where rocking the suburbs won’t wake the neighbors, and only the chemistry between Vaughn and Hill provides any levity to the tame R-rated comedy.
Evan (Stiller) happily lives his days forming neighborhood clubs, doing community outreach, and running a Costco in his little suburban hamlet. When his midnight security guard (who happens to be a newly-minted American citizen), Antonio Guzman (Joe Nunez), is brutally murdered by a mysterious attacker, Evan decides to form a neighborhood watch group. His only recruits are the rambunctious Bob (Vaughn), the slightly psychotic Franklin (Hill), and the reserved Jamarcus (Ayoade). Evan is on a mission to find Antonio’s killer, but the other members just want to kick back and have a good time with the guys. However, the quartet is called to action when their investigation leads them to discover hostile aliens among us.
However, there’s never much urgency to the hostile-alien plot even though that’s supposed to be the film’s central conflict. A major discovery like alien invaders should occupy the Watch’s every waking moment, but the characters don’t react or change in any significant way. Bob’s more concerned about protecting his 17-year-old daughter’s virginity, Franklin goes with the flow as long as it allows him to assert his authority, and Jamarcus doesn’t seem to do much of anything. This leaves Evan to carry the momentum of the central conflict, and at that point you may as well leave the drama to a bowl of cold oatmeal rather than Stiller’s charisma.
Yet again, Stiller is playing a dull straight man who will locate a spine in the third act. The thinking behind his character in The Watch is to be the foil to his wacky cohorts, but instead he just ends up throwing cold water on any energy the other characters build up. Vaughn is also playing a familiar character—the fast-talking know-it-all—but Bob finds a good foil in Evan. Hill has great chemistry with Vaughn, and his deadpan comic intensity bounces well off of his co-star’s rapid-fire delivery. Sadly, the film never finds a place for Ayoade. Fans of his British sitcom The IT Crowd know he’s hilarious, but The Watch doesn’t have a place for his talents other than a memorable character introduction.
The movie also smothers the comic abilities of Schaffer. Fans of his previous film, Hot Rod, will be sorely disappointed at the absence of the delightfully strange and offbeat comedy in The Watch. Schaffer is working in Shawn Levy Mode: keep your head down, don’t overshadow your stars, and make sure your movie is devoid of any personality whatsoever. His lack of energy further hurts a movie that could desperately use some, especially since it would help to distract from the movie’s curious values.
It’s difficult to explain The Watch‘s conservatism without going into spoilers [I’ll go into details below the poster]. Without divulging anything major, the movie kicks off with a hint of subversion by having Evan narrate about how he’s looking for a black friend as if that would help him achieve his goal of a perfect suburban life. But The Watch never goes any further in trying to poke fun at middle-class suburban values. Obviously, the basic plot is all about fear of “the other” as a hostile invading force, and it’s not a bad premise for a daring and creative comedy. But this film is not a daring and creative comedy. It’s one where the most exciting thing that can happen is down at the Costco. The Watch asks us to kindly move along, because there’s nothing to see here.
Antonio is found with his skin missing and we discover that the aliens are already among us (fear your neighbors because they might be against you). It an easy play at Invasion of the Body Snatchers except it doesn’t go anywhere. We only see two disguised aliens and one of them is Jamarcus (that’s right: the black guy). The movie never explains where Jamarcus got his skin, so unless he found it on a cadaver or a nerdy British black guy who no longer required epidermis, Jamarcus probably killed someone. Jamarcus tells his new friends that there’s a transmitter that will call down the alien armada. Rather than suggest that they all go destroy the transmitter (which is what the three white guys decide to do on their own), Jamarcus says his new friends should flee into the desert to live out their days (and presumably build a new Costco and other trappings of suburban life). Jamarcus does come by at the end to save the day, but it’s a perfunctory rescue rather than anything to do with his character.
The other disguised alien is the lead bad guy, who takes the form of the kid who’s trying to sleep with Bob’s daughter. Unless the kid is attacked after romancing Bob’s daughter (and we never see this attack), then it makes no sense why the alien would waste time trying to bed a teenager instead of preparing for his species to invade our planet. If the kid is the alien the whole time, then Bob is doubly-correct in meddling in his daughter’s personal life and pushing abstinence on a hormone-fueled teenager. Whether you agree with Bob’s values or not, the aggressive father-protecting-daughter is a tired joke.
With Evan’s plotline, he’s trying to conceive with his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt), but he knows he’s been sterile for a year-and-a-half. He’s ashamed he can’t give his wife a child, but rather than talk with her to find a solution, he’s embarrassed he can’t fulfill his “manly duties” and procreate. One could argue that the mature approach isn’t conducive to comedy, except Evan’s conflict with his wife is never played for laughs.
Finally, when Evan, Bob, and Franklin go into the Costco to shut down the alien transmitter, they’re joined by Evan’s wife and an inept local cop (Will Forte). The cop gets injured and Evan’s wife stays behind to help him because that’s women’s work, dammit. Leave the alien hunting to the men.