Friday, July 27, 2012

Suburban Space Invaders: THE WATCH

Turning out to be nothing more than a belabored, R-rated commercial for Costco (actual dialogue: “They really do have everything we need!), The Watch is a halfhearted action comedy content to do nothing surprising. The story, such as it is, kicks off when the local Costco manager (Ben Stiller) shows up to work one morning to find that the store has overnight turned into a crime scene. The local cop (Will Forte) informs him that the night watchman has been mysteriously murdered. Shaken up, Stiller puts out a call for his sleepy suburb to form a neighborhood watch and is a little disappointed that the only people who respond are a needy middle aged motormouth (Vince Vaughn) who just wants a break from intruding upon his teenager’s social life, an awkward wannabe vigilante (Jonah Hill), and a bumbling British man (Richard Ayoade) who wants to join a group to fit in with the locals.

Eventually it turns out that the murderer is an alien who is simply one of many who are already in the town, poised to phone home and start the invasion proper. So, it’s up to the four flawed guys to stop the space creatures before they can move forward with their plan. Not that the film gathers any momentum from this threat. No, the movie just meanders through typical moments of male gross-out humor bonding, stumbles into a lame Invasion of the Body Snatchers lite and then lazily gets up the effort to squeak out a typical shoot-‘em-up climax.  Altogether it feels like the result of letting a bad Apatow knockoff write and direct a Hollywood remake of Attack the Block. It’s lazily paced, painfully predictable and unimaginative in all aspects, like two faded copies of copies placed one over the other.

It didn’t have to be this way. The talent involved here is promising. The cast is made up of funny, skilled performers and I haven’t even mentioned Rosemarie DeWitt, relegated to a thanklessly underwritten role as Stiller’s wife, or Doug Jones, the incredible performer behind so many great screen creatures (not the least of which is Pan’s Labyrinth’s terrifying Pale Man) who suits up to play the aliens. But the story, written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (of the great raunchy teen comedy Superbad) and rewritten by Jared Stern (of the not-so-great Mr. Popper’s Penguins), is beat-by-beat dull and rote. It feels slapped together in a way that makes everyone involved appear to be shrugging towards paychecks. Everyone on screen has been vibrant and energetic, funny and sympathetic in other roles. Here, though, they’re all playing characters that are thinly sketched and vaguely off-putting while just going through the paces in a movie that can’t quite get its act together. It is witless and lame every step of the way.

The anemic script is certainly the key problem here, but it doesn’t help matters that its tone is so unformed. When it opens on Stiller narrating us through a typical day in the life of his character, the film appears to be sharpening its satirical claws on the gleaming store shelves and perfect suburban subdivisions, looking with scorn upon the hollow homogenized lifestyles of the characters. But, as more characters come into focus and the gears of the plot slowly get up to speed, it’s clear that this movie’s going nowhere fast. Strange detours into the kinky life of a creepy neighbor (Billy Crudup) and a half-formed subplot about a leering teenager (Nicholas Braun) after Vaughn’s daughter sap away momentum and cloud the tone. Are we supposed to actually validate the overzealous behavior of the central characters in so thoroughly, incompetently, poking around where they don’t belong? They’re hard to root for and when the plot resolves, it does so almost by accident.

The biggest disappointment here is the direction from Akiva Schaffer, not because it’s especially bad – it’s slick and competent – but because it’s so devoid of energy and creativity.  After directing so many terrific, hilarious Digital Shorts for Saturday Night Live and the smart-stupid new cult comedy classic Hot Rod, it’s unfortunate to see him deliver something so uninspired. There’s just about nothing here worth talking about or reacting to. I saw the movie amongst a boisterous crowd of people who, as the movie started, fell silent. As the movie played, we stayed silent. Then, a little over 90 minutes later, we all filed out. I went in hoping for a few laughs and left feeling dispirited. It’s not just bad; it’s nothing but missed opportunities all around.

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