Monday, November 12, 2012

Review: The Watch

During its domestic theatrical run, The Watch starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill amassed just a hair over $35M in ticket sales.  When pieces of blame pie were being handed out for the film’s poor performance, much was attributed to the issues that arose due to the Trayvon Martin shooting.  To avoid any backlash, Fox scrapped the film’s original title – Neighborhood Watch – and focused its marketing towards the alien invasion aspect of the film rather than the neighborhood watch theme (and by extension, the film’s high priced talent).  Having seen the movie, I have a new theory as to why it performed so poorly at the box office; because it wasn’t funny.

The movie follows Ben Stiller’s Evan, a manager at a local Costco who decides to form a Neighborhood Watch group after one of his employees is brutally murdered inside the store.  Bob (Vince Vaughn), Franklin (Jonah Hill), and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade) join Stiller and not a moment too soon as the four ill-prepared individuals find themselves thrust into the middle of an alien invasion. 

In looking at the cast and crew associated with this project, I could not help but have high expectations for this film. Stiller (Zoolander), Vaughn (Wedding Crashers) and Hill (21 Jump Street) have all achieved tremendous comedic success in the past and ditto for writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad). In all honesty, you could probably put this group in an empty soundstage with no script and film them riffing for two hours and come away with comedic gold.  So it begs the question, why this film was so subpar. 

The premise of the film is goofy and the set up silly.  The formation of a misfit group of watch dogs thrust into a crisis for which they are not qualified to handle clearly offers the opportunity to explore some fantastic comedic moments – both scripted and adlibbed.  Sadly, the laughs are very few and very far between.  While the simple answer is to say poor writing is the culprit, Stiller, Vaughn, and Hill are known to go off script quite often and so they must shoulder much of the blame.

Stiller gets first billing in this film so he gets the most blame.  As his career has matured, he has moved away from happy-go-lucky bumbling schlep roles towards awkward, somewhat edgy, disconnected characters.  Once the actor who would generate laughter, these days he plays more the straight man trying to set others up for the punch line like a point guard in basketball game.  The problem here is that’s not Stiller’s game.  His best is being likable, goofy, and self-deprecating in a way that makes audiences root for him.  Unfortunately, in this film he’s awkward, friendless, and a bit overzealous about tedium.

As for Vaughn, somewhere along the lines he went from acting out characters that are very slick in the way they could care less to becoming an actor who just doesn’t seem to care a bit about the roles he portrays.  His delivery staunchly remains breezy and sarcastic even when the role demands otherwise and in spite of the fact his shtick has gone stale. 

And then there’s Jonah Hill.  Hill to me is the cinematic equivalent of the moon.  He has his moments to shine, but at the end of the day that light is drawn from whomever he is playing opposite.  A lot of his best works is off script, off the cuff, and born from lively sarcastic exchanges with other comedic talents.  His track record bears this out as he is at his best as one half a comedic duo (21 Jump Street, Superbad) or part of an ensemble and his least impressive work occurs when he has been asked to do most of the heavy lifting himself (The Sitter).  And because of this, Hill is left to sink to the level of those around him in this movie.

Sure, there are other people in the cast who contribute to this exercise in cinematic mediocrity, but if you saw this movie it was because of the aforementioned triumvirate and those are the three that should be held responsible for a movie that I can’t recommend.  It’s a hard thing for me to say because in the past I have been a fan of this crew and their sophomoric brand of humor, but all comedians have a shelf life and it seems that Stiller and Vaughn may have reached the end of theirs.  It’s not an obscenely bad movie, but it’s a comedy that’s not really funny.  At best it’s a bottom of the Netflix queue movie that will never migrate its way to the top of the list.  So here’s hoping that Stiller finds his groove again in the much discussed Zoolander sequel, though I for one won’t hold my breath on that.

Standout Performance: Richard Ayoade - the other guy in the trailers (the 4th member of the neighborhood watch).  He gets the nod for one reason and one reason only – for scoring a major role such as this one with very little big screen acting experience on his resume.  I have heard he’s really funny, but unfortunately none of that manifests on screen during this film


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