Friday, July 27, 2012

The Watch: You definitely don't want to

The Watch (2012) • View trailer
One star. Rating: R, for pervasive profanity, vulgar sexual content, violence and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang

This misbegotten train wreck represents the triumph of a pithy high-concept pitch over common sense, plot logic and artistic integrity.

Having learned that a newly discovered silver sphere is a powerful
alien weapon, our numbnuts heroes — from left, Jamarcus (Richard
Ayoade), Bob (Vince Vaughn), Evan (Ben Stiller) and Franklin (Jonah
Hill) — proceed to blow up all sorts of stuff, accompanied by much
raucous laughter. Sadly, they can't laugh hard enough to make us
viewers believe that any of this dreck is the slightest bit amusing.
The Watch may not wind up as the worst big-studio effort of 2012, but it’ll do until that one comes along.

Words simply fail me. I can’t believe this mess ever started as an actual script; it feels like so-called writers Jared Stern, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg got stoned one evening, jotted wild ’n’ crazy ideas onto pieces of paper, threw them in the air, assembled them randomly and then handed the stack to director Akiva Schaffer, who apparently saw no reason to argue.

Schaffer, it should be noted, was a longtime writer and director — of digital shorts — on TV’s Saturday Night Live. He paused long enough, during that tenure, to direct Andy Samberg in one of 2007’s limpest comedies, Hot Rod. Haven’t ever heard of it? That’s to your advantage; don’t go looking.

At the risk of repeating an old cliché, on the basis of that film and his “work” here on The Watch, Schaffer ain’t fit to direct traffic. Nor would I let him direct me to a market half a block away; he’d undoubtedly get it wrong.

Failed comedies can be egregiously awful, and this one certainly qualifies. The dialogue sounds under-rehearsed; the characters lack continuity or credibility; the plot sorta/kinda stumbles from one scene to the next. As is typical of too many numbnuts “doofus projects” these days, profanity and vulgarity are tossed about like spent condoms — actually one of the many running gags — in the vain hope that such elements can draw laughter. Not because any of the lines are actually funny, but ... just because.

Random dialogue exchanges are reflexively homophobic, racist, sexist and all other –ists that come to mind; about the best that can be said, is that these guys are equal-opportunity offenders.

And as bad as the limp-noodle efforts at slapstick humor are, things get even worse when Christophe Beck’s soundtrack swells with what’s intended to be feigned emotion, for a scene Schaffer apparently hopes will be heartwarming. Gaaahhh...

On a purely business level, this film also represents the most egregiously excessive example of product placement I’ve ever seen; it’s little more than a 100-minute ad for Costco. Bearing that in mind, Costco should have picked up this flick’s reported budget of $70 million (!!!): an amount that somebody will have to write off as a loss ... and (one hopes) a lesson well learned.

Ben Stiller, who rarely embraces a bad film that he can’t further sabotage, stars as Evan Troutwig, senior manager of the Glenview Costco. Evan fancies himself an all-inclusive man of the people, and is known for forming jogging groups and other neighborly activities. Turns out, though, that Evan uses these extra-curricular activities as a means of avoiding friendships and close relationships ... or so we’re told, during a moment of cheap armchair psychology.

When one of his employees is killed quite gruesomely while on Costco night guard duty, Evan organizes a neighborhood watch program. His impassioned, civic-minded call for support attracts only three takers: fun-loving Bob (Vince Vaughn), who has rather serious parenting issues with his teenage daughter, Chelsea (Erin Moriarty); Franklin (Jonah Hill), a law enforcement reject looking for payback; and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), a recent divorcé looking for love.

Evan is serious about their newly formed neighborhood watch; the other three view this “club” solely as an excuse to drink beer, swap dirty stories and perhaps kick some ass. Evan’s efforts to arrest their wild ’n’ crazy antics are about as successful as Schaffer’s fitful attempts to make us like his film.

Further complications come courtesy of a condescending local cop (Will Forte), an irascible old coot (R. Lee Ermey) who views the watch members as a joke, the arrogant young stud (Nicholas Braun) hitting on Chelsea too aggressively, and Evan’s oddly sinister new neighbor (Billy Crudup).

This so-called comedy’s “surprise” is that Glenview really IS in serious trouble, having been invaded by nasty, spiky, tentacled aliens from outer space, which resemble slightly smaller cousins of the berserker fighters in the Predator franchise. Circumstances lead our heroes to realize that at least some of these unwanted visitors have assumed human form by stealing the skin from their victims. Paranoia, anybody?

This particular revelation, however, merely amplifies the contempt these filmmakers have for us viewers. Under no circumstances could this alien anatomy successfully don skin and “pass” for human; the respective shapes aren’t even close. At least the Raxacoricofallapatorians (Slitheen) in the Dr. Who universe are said to employ a “compression collar” in order to fit their corpulent, 8-foot frames into the zippered skin of luckless human victims; in this film, we’re just supposed to accept this transformation because, well, the script says so. Uh-huh.

Subsequent encounters with these beasties involve octopoid extremities and dollops of green glop that get compared — at great, tedious length — to male human ejaculate. Such “gags,” I hasten to stress, represent the height of this film’s humor. And when our boys discover a powerful alien weapon — disguised as a silver bowling ball — they naturally hare about like giddy school kids, blowing up everything from cows to tractors. Fun times.

Oh, yes; we also have a pointless subplot involving Evan’s failure to tell his wife, Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), that he’s sterile: something of a setback, since she rilly, rilly wants to have children. Near as I can tell, this narrative hiccup exists only to amplify the film’s many limp penis jokes, and to get DeWitt into a “take me now” outfit.

Back on the alien front, things don’t get any better as we approach the explosive climax, although I will acknowledge Digital Domain’s nifty special effects; the E.T.s, when finally revealed in their hideous glory, are pretty cool.

But as for the “big reveal” regarding which of these characters are aliens in disguise ... well, even a 5-year-old could suss out that secret.

So ... what does distinguish a successful sci-fi/fantasy comedy from a wannabe flop? Why are Ghostbusters and Galaxy Quest so vastly superior to this dead-on-arrival turkey? Sharper scripts, for openers, accompanied by actors who genuinely try to inhabit characters that are more than one-note stereotypes.

And a greater attention to detail, thank you very much. Even a made-up story needs to adhere to its own interior logic; The Watch can’t even get that much right.

As for the so-called acting ... don’t get me started. The performances are stiff and awkward, the line readings an insult to junior high school theater productions. Stiller plays yet another of his typical uptight smart-asses — a role he could phone in, at this point — while Vaughn and Hill are no more than blustering, blathering blowhards desperately seeking a genuinely funny line. Good luck with that; actual humor would die of loneliness in this flick.

The London-born Ayoade, at least, makes good use of his British accent, and does his best to turn Jamarcus into more of an actual character than probably existed on paper. He and the aforementioned effects elevate Schaffer’s Folly from total turkeydom to its one-star rating.

This film achieved unwanted notoriety earlier this year, when George Zimmerman’s Florida shooting of Trayvon Martin turned the phrase “neighborhood watch” into an ugly joke. As it happens, The Watch originally was (much more appropriately) titled Neighborhood Watch, which left 20th Century Fox in a bit of a pickle: What to do? Studio execs, apparently paid big bucks to make such unimaginative decisions, elected to shorten the title and go with The Watch.

Too bad they couldn’t have shortened the entire film into oblivion, and spared us the possibility of enduring it.

1 comment:

  1. Good review Derrick. This film definitely had some funny bits here and there, but nothing all that special and it ends up being a total disappointment with a cast and crew that have all done so much better in their careers.