For one reason or another, I continue to take a mild interest in the work of Ben Stiller. I suppose it all started with cult classics like Heavyweights, Reality Bites, and Zoolander. I admired his total commitment to buffoonery; he seemed to have a knack for portraying zany characters. While it’s true that he still dedicates himself to silliness, I cannot say that dedication pays off as well as it used to.
In his latest film, The Watch (formerly Neighborhood Watch), Stiller plays an industrious Costco manager who lives in suburban Ohio. After the grisly death of one of his employees, Evan (Stiller) creates a neighborhood watch to serve as lookouts for murderers and other assorted criminals. With the help of his motley recruits–Franklin (Jonah Hill), Bob (Vince Vaughn), and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade)–Evan discovers the killer could be someone, or something, out of this world.
There’s really not much more I can say about The Watch that has not already appeared in the many trailers preceding its release. The whole of the movie can be boiled down to crude jokes interspersed with occasional whacky, alien-hunting shenanigans. At best, it’s a buddy movie à la Anchorman or Dodgeball. At worst, it’s, well, The Watch.
Let me be clear: I did not go into the theater with high hopes. I knew I had a review to write and a free movie pass to use. The Watch seemed like the sort of inane absurdity I could enjoy for an hour and a half. And, for the most part, I did. It is just what I thought it would be: formulaic, crass, and vaguely misogynistic. The jokes are tired and the plot is even less than half-baked (quarter-baked?). It is a dude-centric movie to the core, but I expected nothing less.
The one legitimately redeeming aspect of The Watch is its casting. Even though the film does nothing to showcase the actors’ strengths, the members of the neighborhood watch still work off of each other well. Jamarcus’ soft-spoken weirdness, Franklin’s unpredictability, Bob’s hyperactive friendliness, and Evan’s enthusiasm make for a complementary–albeit typecast–mix. While the humor is often weak or strained, the chemistry between the four bros feels at least somewhat genuine throughout.
In terms of individual performances, Stiller’s is actually the least engaging. Obligatory marital subplots make him struggle twice as hard for laughs that are twice as small as he used to get. Perhaps I am biased, but I would pick Ayoade and Vaughn as the top performers. Vaughn’s character, in comparison to Stiller’s, does a better job of interlacing his domestic dramas with his screwball watchman antics. As for Ayoade, he provides a new face and voice amongst the collection of buddy movie default actors.
When it comes to mindless entertainment, The Watch succeeds. I don’t regret seeing it, nor would I vehemently oppose others who choose to see it. In the future, I simply look forward to watching films that have a little less vulgarity and a little more substance.