The Watch (2012) – Directed by Akiva Schaffer – Starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Rosemarie DeWitt, Will Forte, Billy Crudup, Mel Rodriguez, R Lee Ermey, Andy Samberg, and Jorma Taccone.
Here’s the problem with THE WATCH: the hierarchy of screen time commanded by the leads is the inverse on the comedy delivered by the leads, which is a fancy way of saying that Ben Stiller gets more screen time/is less funny than Vince Vaughn, who gets more screen time/is less funny than Jonah Hill, who gets more screen time/is less funny than Richard Ayoade.
THE WATCH – originally titled NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH but then changed because George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin and 20th Century Fox figured the lesson everyone needed to learn was that Neighborhood Watch programs needed to re-brand themselves lest we think they’re all gun-happy racists – is a frustrating movie. There are parts here that are very funny, but there’s much more that just doesn’t work, and the problem largely falls on the shoulders of the incredibly boring Ben Stiller character, Evan Trautwig, a man who likes to keep starting new clubs to avoid the problems at home.
Which is to say, the problem in his penis.
Which is to say, he fires blanks and is afraid to tell his wife.
It makes sense that Evan would seek to avoid telling his wife and risking her disappointment in him by going off and forming running clubs and Spanish clubs where he gets to hang out with people without ever getting to know them. More importantly, they can’t get to know him and thus become disappointed in him. Since he runs the clubs, people look up to him and he gets to play surrogate daddy to strangers. It’s a good, solid set-up for a character, and when he decides to form a Neighborhood Watch as his latest venture in the wake of a fellow Costco employee’s murder and only three people show up, you can see that maybe the community has finally grown weary of him. The film even wisely sends him wife Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) out of town at the start of the film, too (he wants to forever stay in Small Town, Ohio and she’s yearning for the excitement of New York City), meaning Evan has time alone to work on his issues.
It’s a good set-up.
Too bad the film does so little with it.
Writing partners Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were brought in to re-write NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH and they still write like high school kids who amuse themselves infinitely more than they amuse other people. There’s a sloppiness to the consistency of THE WATCH that’s incredibly frustrating, and while I don’t like to give writers too much credit/blame in how a movie turns out because we don’t know what changes between final draft and final cut that they have no control over, there’s enough similarities here that were shared by two other Rogen/Goldberg turkeys (Pineapple Express and Green Hornet) that trends emerge and I feel comfortable pointing a mild finger in their direction.
I had great friends in high school and we spent endless hours being sarcastic assh*les about everything, so Rogen and Goldberg’s origin stories probably have a decent amount in common with my own. My friends and I would play pool, watch movies, cruise Central Street, and generally rip everything to shreds (including – and especially – each other), but the dynamic was always shifting and leadership was always changing hands. (We found ourselves a lot more amusing than outsiders did, too.) The scattered nature of any one given night – let alone any one given week – was perfectly okay because we were living our lives, not living inside of a movie.
We would occasionally write songs, make music videos, and we even wrote a bunch of skits for an Earth Day performance that consisted of us updating Monty Python skits. A bunch of us acted in our high school’s Tournament of Plays, and as we got older we would re-write these staid scripts on the fly, which did not always go over so well with the rest of the cast or the director. Luckily, by senior year, everyone expected it and we ran roughshod over that year’s play. (And we won a bunch of the tournament awards for it, too, though that might have simply been because we were seniors.) The longest project more than one of us ever worked on together was the our class senior video. Two of us were in charge of getting all sorts of clips and assembling them into a long-form documentary. Well, it was long, and it was occasionally funny, but it wasn’t anything more than funny stuff stitched together. We didn’t present a coherent narrative – we just said things in the editing room like, “Let’s do the sports section now,” and “Hey, we’ve got that scene of a cat giving birth. Where should we cut that in?”
For me, that’s what Rogen/Goldberg films do. They careen forward with a basic plot and when something funny happens, they milk that for as long as they can. Then they’ll remember things like dropped subplots and then just shove them in wherever they are. Their films, and especially THE WATCH, do not feel thought out beyond the rudimentary level. They conceptualize good characters but then abuse them for 90 minutes. They go through the trouble of sending Evan’s wife away, but then ten minutes later she’s back. What was the point of her leaving?
Take the opening of the film. We get a narration from Evan about how much he loves his town, the clubs he’s formed, and that he worked his way up the ladder at the local Costco. Our first introduction to the film, then, is Evan loving his town and his community enough he doesn’t want to even go anywhere else tempered with the fact that he’s a bit of a tosser. I mean, the guy keeps forming clubs and he spends twelve years working at Costco and it’s all presented in such a way that the intent is: “You don’t want to be this guy because he’s a social mistake.”
But then when we start seeing him act instead of hearing him talk, he’s also a decent guy, and the shift is jarring – are we supposed to laugh at this loser or empathize with this decent guy? He’s the last man standing at work, and interested in his overnight security guard’s life. When the guard tells him he just passed his citizenship test and shows off his new “Proud to be American” tattoo, Evan lightheartedly tells him, 1. keep the tattoo covered because it’s against Costco policy, and 2. that if a bag of Bugles and six-pace of Coke go missing, it’s on Evan.
He’s a nice guy who likes his rules. When the guard is murdered, he’s genuinely touched by it and calls for a Neighborhood Watch to be formed, but only three guys show up: Bob (Vince Vaughn), who’s looking for a new boy’s club to join; Franklin (Jonah Hill), a would-be cop; and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), a recent divorcee who wants to use the Watch to get laid by lonely, thankful housewives. Evan takes everything way too seriously for the other guys, who decide to go to Bob’s house and share a few beers. To them, this is a bit of a laugh, but to Evan this is his new identity. The set-up is that they’re all looking for something new in their lives to fill the gap of what they’re missing, but only Evan doesn’t recognize this in himself.
All of that sounds like a reasonable set-up to me, but the film doesn’t want any of these characters become actual people, and instead goes for boy band casting to give everyone distinct roles. Evan is the uptight one. Bob is the loud one. Franklin is the psychotic one. Jamarcus is the background one. By the end of the film, they’ve changed – Evan un-clenches, Bob quiets down, Franklin normalizes, and Jamarcus reveals himself to be an alien spy – but not via any meaningful arcs. The film is much more interested in endlessly telling us that the green, alien slime feels like cum, or having Franklin made odd, clumsy passes at Evan’s wife, than doing much with the characters.
And you can say that this is just a comedy and you’d be right. Maybe if this comedy was actually funny, I wouldn’t be going on about the narrative arcs, but it isn’t funny enough. Part of the blame for that comes in the decision of director Akiva Schaffer (who directed the mind-numbingly stupid and unfunny Hot Rod) to limit the actors, too. I’m pretty sure all of these actors were hired just to parody themselves, so there’s never a sense that THE WATCH is anything but a derivative of something else.
In my head, I like to imagine Hill and Ayoade sitting at the back of a set, watching Stiller and Vaughn do their tired, old shtick. Ayoade turns to Hill and says, “Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen to us,” and Hill replies, “Why do you think I did Moneyball? Do you realize that I had to give up a role in the new Tarrantino movie because I committed to this piece of sh*t?”
As an actor, Hill has moved beyond a film like THE WATCH, and not just because he can now be hired for films like Moneyball and Django Unchained (he eventually got a smaller role in the film). He showed with 21 Jump Street (which he co-wrote), that he knows how to make a really smart dumb movie. That movie shows some actual skill, while THE WATCH just flops around for 90 minutes.
It’s too bad because I love that idea of these strangers finding what they’re missing in each other, and the film’s best moment comes when Bob and Evan have a heart-to-heart where their flaws start to become topics of discussion. Bob opens up and tells Evan that he’s having a hard time at home – his wife travels and that means he has to do more of the parenting with their teenage daughter. Bob’s parenting skills involve Facebook stalking, saying No, and yelling. Evan reveals he has no kids and that his equipment doesn’t work. Bob is all over him for his safe language, telling him to loosen up, that they’re just too guys shooting the sh*t. It’s a really clever moment, demonstrating the cultural role foul language can play for guys, as it symbolizes a safe zone where guys can be guys, and-
Wait, I’m sorry. I mean to say, “Touch the slime. It really feels like cum.”
Evan finally lets it out that he hasn’t told Abby he can’t get her pregnant because he feels he’ll be letting her down. Bob lights in to him, telling him what a dummy he is and exclaiming, in the movie’s best line, “She married you, not your dead jizz!”
That scene is also the saddest scene in the movie because it shows that Vaughn, at least, can do so much more than parody himself. He can be a funny guy in funny movie that has an arc. While he’s not as funny here as he once was, it’s the relationship he has with his daughter that gives him his best moments. And when those moments begin influencing his relationship with Evan, all I could think was that we’d have been infinitely better off if Vaughn’s character was the lead and Stiller’s played second fiddle.
I laughed here and there, so I don’t mean to give the impression that this movie is a complete waste of time. My lasting impression of this film, however, is that the focus on Serious Evan drags the film down. THE WATCH is continually fighting with itself. It’s not smart, it’s not clever, it’s not insightful, it’s just an excuse for actors to come in and do shtick under the guise of an alien invasion comedy.
All that stuff about loving one’s community that Evan yaps about at the start? It’s completely absent from the film. You might expect community to be at the heart of the film, but no one here knows each other, and the actual town never becomes a character in the film. We’re told this is small town, Ohio, but it could be any nameless, faceless town anywhere because it’s not a real town, at all. It’s a Hollywood town where everyone lives in really nice houses and nobody knows your name. It’s a town where when the top cop (Will Forte) goes on TV and says that there’s only eight cops in the whole town, I was sorta expecting that to be true. I was expecting a really small town, but Glenview isn’t a small town because later when we see the police station it seems like there’s eight cops in there and on duty, even though it’s late at night. And then when the Watch realizes an alien invasion is coming, they make a point of saying they need to rally people, but there’s no rally, at all. The actual community here that they’re watching is simply a weird neighbor (Bill Crudup), a dickish cop, R. Lee Ermey, and some egg-throwing kids, and only the dickish cop and Evan’s wife play any role in the final battle.
THE WATCH is occasionally funny, mostly dumb, and lacks any real skill from anyone involved.