The Watch is The Avengers of comic superstar movies, if the Avengers decided they didn't really want to work together and looked sorta annoyed occupying the same story. The movie stars Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill, and it's rare to see a film in which so many big names seem to be operating in their own little worlds. This isn't an ensemble comedy: It's famous guys doing their own separate shticks at each other in the hopes that the combined hilarity will result in massive laughs. No wonder their lesser-known costar Richard Ayoade comes off the best. While everybody around him huffs and puffs to be hysterical, he just sits in the corner quietly being very funny.
The movie was originally called Neighborhood Watch, but the title was changed after Trayvon Martin was shot to death by a neighborhood watch captain in February. It's unlikely anyone seeing the film will think a lot about those actual events, though, since The Watch is such a goofy, trying-hard-to-be-R-rated comedy that it doesn't much brush up against anything you've experienced in real life.
Stiller plays Evan, a neurotic Costco manager who organizes tons of different clubs in his tranquil Ohio suburb as a way of ignoring the problems he's having at home getting his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) pregnant. Vaughn is Bob, a foul-mouthed, aging manchild freaked out by his hormonal teen daughter (Erin Moriarty), and Hill is Franklin, who's basically doing a version of Seth Rogen's hair-trigger psycho from Observe and Report. (Rogen co-wrote the script.) When one of Evan's employees is gruesomely killed under mysterious circumstances, Evan starts a neighborhood watch, which Bob, Franklin, and the mild-mannered, horny Jamarcus (Ayoade) join because they have nothing better to do. That turns out to be a poor allocation of their free time after they realize they've got to contend with vicious aliens.
What becomes clear rather quickly is that the neighborhood watch is really just an excuse for each man to avoid the unhappiness in his own life. Amidst the dick jokes and boorish behavior, The Watch wants to kinda sorta maybe say something about suburban malaise, middle-aged male angst and immigration policy, but in a pinch everybody will go back to the dick jokes because, hey, they're easier. There's noticeably awkward improv in several scenes, which suggests that director Akiva Schaffer (Lonely Island member and director of Hot Rod) occasionally acquiesced to his powerful stars and let them wing it while the cameras were rolling. And while The Watch can be really funny in spots, these moments tend to be isolated, the product of a cast member reverting to his trademark persona one more time. Characters don't develop, and comic sequences don't build or evolve: The Watch is a Dream Team in which no one's drawn up any plays and nobody passes the ball. Everybody just shoots and hopes for the best.
Worse, The Watch doesn't even have the good sense to be a proper hard-R summer comedy. The thrill of these particular comedies was supposed to be that they got away with naughtier humor that wasn't restricted by the limitations of general-audience demands. But instead of being shocking or transgressive, The Watch's abundant swearing just fills a vacuum where something funny ought to be happening. Tellingly, one of the most risqué moments involves the members of the Lonely Island in a circle jerk, as apt a metaphor for The Watch's combination of tired "offensive" gags and self-amused attitude as one could hope. And as if further proof is needed that the film doesn't really want to push all that many buttons, The Watch eventually turns into a series of sappy scenes in which our blowhard heroes start to realize that they need to take control of their lives. But here as well, the movie can't quite commit: It's not really sure what it wants to be. (Even The Watch's alien-invasion plot—the film's main hook—seems tacked on, as if the filmmakers decided they needed their stars to do something over the course of 100 minutes and, hell, being chased by scary-looking critters is as good as anything else.)
With its big stars and mix of tones—sci-fi/action/laughs/heart—The Watch very much announces itself as a would-be comic blockbuster designed to please everybody a little, but in no specific way as to make it memorable. So you're forced to find your enjoyment where you can, which I did by loving Will Forte's supporting turn as a snide, stupid local cop. (He has the best moment near the end of the movie, and I'm convinced he came up with it on the spot.) And then there's Ayoade, the up-and-coming British comic who made last year's snarky indie Submarine and was very funny in the Channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd. He's easily the best part of The Watch because he seems the least concerned with hitting comedic home runs. (Unlike his famous costars, he doesn't have to justify his salary by being demonstratively hilarious at all times.) And so he just glides along the edges of The Watch, landing one well-turned punchline after another with his droll understatement. Stiller and company shouldn't be worried about aliens from outer space: This Brit just invaded their star vehicle and walked away with it.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.