There's something to be said about making contact on a fastball over the middle.
Let's talk about it on paper: a summer movie about a suburban neighborhood watch program uncovering an alien invasion. An R-rated action-comedy teaming up Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller and Jonah Hill, with comedy-nerd favorite Richard Ayoade thrown in for good measure. The Lonely Island's Akiva Shaffer (who was behind the camera for most of SNL's Digital Shorts) directing a script that was re-worked by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.
All three of those sound like winning elevator pitches. If you told me all three before I went to a preview screening of The Watch, only the third would seem disappointing in retrospect. The Watch is not amazing or innovative. It won't set the box office on fire and it won't pick up a cult following. It won't give you a new level of appreciation for anyone involved. It will, however, be entertaining to people who head into the theater expecting Stiller, Vaughn, Hill and Ayoade in a hard-R comedy.
When you see those four names in a comedy, you can get a good idea of the characters. Ayoade is the introverted smart guy, Hill is the manic social outcast, Vaughn is the overbearing loudmouth and Stiller is the hapless loser at the center of it all. That's what these four men are "known" to play in their comedic roles, and they deliver here. I sense that the typecasting is a source of some backlash towards the movie, because we live in a world where people didn't go see Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World because Michael Cera was being too Michael Cera-y.
When people see Stiller, Vaughn, Hill and Ayoade in a movie trailer, they expect There's Something About Mary, Old School, Superbad and The IT Crowd, but when that's what they get they turn around and complain that so-and-so's act is tired. That's maybe a fair assessment for Vaughn, who has been mucking around in romantic comedies for the better part of this decade and playing soulless varations on his Beanie character from Old School with a few notable exceptions (Dodgeball, Wedding Crashers). On the other hand, the same doesn't apply to his co-stars. This is Ayoade's first major film role and most audiences aren't keen to his schtick in the IT Crowd or Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. Hill is delivering his third consecutive comedy after a change-up (baseball puns!) in Moneyball. He'll appear in Quentin Tarrantino's Django Unchained later this year, so he's not afraid to do something different. Ditto for Stiller, who takes time between tentpole franchises for a project like Tropic Thunder or Greenberg to retain some street cred. In fact, his lead character in The Watch is the most unique from the archetype, because he blends the "unlucky dope" aspects of Gaylord Focker (of Meet The Parents fame) with some of his more obtuse supporting characters like White Goodman (Dodgeball) or Tony Perkis (Heavyweights). This cast is capable of doing something different, but this time they didn't. And like I said, there's something to be said about hitting one that's right over the plate.
The characters are the only thing that drives The Watch, so if you're not down with them, you should probably skip it. The plot is passable but mainly a vehicle to put these four guys in unique situations. Stiller's Evan and Vaughn's Bob both have family issues on the side that paint their interactions with the group, but those subplots are dropped the second the central conflict gets addressed. The script, developed as a teen comedy before being rewritten by Rogen and Goldberg, is more Drillbit Taylor than Pineapple Express. There's no social commentary and no prevailing voice from Schaffer in the director's chair. This is his second feature after 2007's Hot Rod, and his directing style seems to be getting out of the way of his actors and letting them explore the space, for better or worse.
Most of the funny parts and all of the appeal of the film come from watching the four guys interact with each other and with a few supporting cast gems (Rosemary DeWitt, Will Forte, R. Lee Ermey and a really odd appearance by Billy Crudup). And there's almost zero gross-out humor involved, which seems unheard of given everything I've already said above.
As small-scale alien invasion movies go, Attack The Block was sharper and gave its comedy more build. As R-rated comedies go, 21 Jump Street had better plot, character development and action sequences. But neither of those movies feature Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill doing straight improv for an entire scene, nor do they feature Richard Ayoade straight-up calling someone "a fucking cunt." So this is the niche into which The Watch slides. The critics say the film favors foul language over wit, and they are largely right. But if you know what you're getting from the start, it's worth throwing on your Netflix queue.