The aliens are among us in Akiva Skaffer’s The Watch, a new sci-fi comedy that doesn’t have nearly enough of either.
A low brow ditty about four suburban dolts battling alien invasion in Ohio, The Watch is a mutant mass of spastic, dodgy writing and hyperactive nonsense. It’s the latest malformed hybrid in the Seth Rogen ‘we can make anything a genital joke’ sweepstakes. It’s a precious cultural moment we have arrived at when the centerpiece of an alien monster movie is two men sitting on a bench talking about the other guy’s sterile sperm in smirky asides.
Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade stumble around a plot that has no idea where it’s going, with Vince Vaughn playing the part of mad conductor. When a Costco manager (Stiller) thinks that extraterrestrials are stealing the skin of the people in his town, he puts together a neighborhood watch made up of bored suburban dudes who want an excuse to escape their families and drink and swear. Since when did you have to form a vigilance group to do that?
Except Stiller’s Evan is really trying to get to the bottom of the murder of his security guard buddy Antonio Guzman (Joe Nunez), while the other three—Franklin (Hill), Bob (Vaughn) and Jamarcus (Ayoade)—are either bored, lonely or looking for some action (Jamarcus is particularly fond of Asians). Eventually they stumble across the alien plot, evidenced by a shiny metallic ball with destructive powers and some goopy tentacles strewn on the hood of their car.
From there, the story plays out much like the erratic one-joke digital shorts that director Skaffer has done for Saturday Night Live, loosely connected by the alien menace that remains in the shadows for an hour or so before the dopey reveal. The aliens have the usual plans of world domination but they lack characterization. They look like the offspring of the mugwumps from Naked Lunch and the Gill Man of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Throw in the Predator’s mandibles and you have yourself a thoroughly generic mish-mash. Don’t worry much about that, though. This isn’t science fiction or a horror homage. I’m honestly half-convinced that the original version of this film didn’t have aliens at all, but once the filmmakers realized that these four guys couldn’t carry an entire film of shambling about ‘preventing’ crime, they added in something to spice it up for the summer crowd.
There’s not much real acting here, although Rosemarie Dewitt, as Stiller’s long-suffering wife, and Billy Crudup, as a potential alien neighbor, do attempt it. Vaughn is possibly the worst thing about the film, dropping any pretense of nuance or character. He drools all over the role of a blustery dad with a willful teenage girl, utilizing his most aggravating acting tic; talking faster and louder until it becomes ‘funny’. His Bob deterioates into bombastic frat boy schtick so violently that he comes off like an auctioneer with Tourette’s.
If Vaughn has lost any sense of restraint or taste, the other performers are curiously stilted and neutered. Jonah Hill reverts to the most obvious traits of his Super Bad character and there’s a wasted opportunity. He raises his eyebrows, lets his mouth hang open, and keeps casting tilted glances between Stiller and Vaughn, wordlessly asking the prime question; did the checks clear? Ayoade is plainly meant to be the film’s ace in the hole, the smart-aleck, slightly out-of-place sidekick that steals every scene he’s in. Unfortunately, Jamarcus is a flimsy caricature that doesn’t give Ayoade the opportunity to display the outsider charm he brough to The IT Crowd. I’m sure we will see him again, but this is not a proper American debut.
Stiller has also retreated to his back catalog for defense against the film’s blandness, and he’s dialed up his Something About Mary turn. The well-meaning, slightly deluded sad sack is something Stiller can do well enough, but he cant generate the energy necessary to offset the spiraling indifference of the other three. The film proves its complete ineptitude when it rolls out R. Lee Ermey, the Orson Welles of the swear word, and makes him seem like a constipated old man who can barely stammer an insult.
The ghost of Joe Dante’s The Burbs hangs all over The Watch, and once again the older film is made better by comparison. Working-class comedy like this needs at least one or two characters we can potentially sympathize with. Dante’s cul de-sac of goons were like rejects from a Twilight Zone ep, but they were colorful and played with a zany style that reminded us of our own private fears of invasion and otherness.
There’s a classic scene in that film where Hanks and his entourage watch a neighbor assault a trashcan possibly containing a body, and when asked if he’s ever witnessed this before, Hank’s Ray replies ‘No, I’ve never seen a guy drive his garbage to the end of the lane and then beat the hell out of it with a garden impliment.’ There was an offbeat charm to that film. I’d take the deliciously awkward moment of Hanks consuming an appetizer of old sardine on saltine over the scene in The Watch where Vaughn taste-tests alien blood to see if it’s got the texture of human semen.