Despite the fairly obvious fact that high-concept buddy action movies have succeeded in recent years only when they’ve had an ace-in-the-hole director (David Gordon Green for Pineapple Express, Edgar Wright for Shaun of the Dead, Joe Cornish for Attack the Block), Twentieth Century Fox thought it passable to hire director Akiva Shaffer, whose only prior feature-length movie was 2007’s lifeless Andy Samberg vehicle Hot Rod, to try to make sense out of The Watch, a film that requires Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill to play bickering suburban stereotypes — each a familiar version of their usual screen persona — who find themselves ensconced in an alien invasion. Maybe somebody high up in the studio thought that taking a chance on Shaffer was a good gamble, but the result of hiring a bland director is generally a bland film, which is definitely true of The Watch. As hard as it is to imagine a boring movie emerging from the simple enough idea of letting a group of ace comedians ad-lib their way through a series of battles with aliens, Shaffer has managed to make exactly that.
Stiller plays Evan Trautwig, an uptight CostCo store manager (much of the action revolves around his store, which provides the film with innumerable opportunities for product placement) who forms a neighborhood watch group after his head security guard is mysteriously eviscerated while patrolling late one night. The cops in town are no help, and the only folks Evan manages to wrangle to solve the murder range from woefully incompetent to psychotic. There’s Bob (Vince Vaughn), a jovial loudmouth suburban dad with a surprisingly short temper; Franklin (Jonah Hill), a gun-nut who lives with his mother and fantasizes about getting back at the cops who wouldn’t let him join the force; and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), a British black man (inexplicably living in suburban Ohio) whose motive for joining the Watch remains a mystery for a much shorter time than the filmmakers most likely intended. This quartet of Watch men spend much more time sitting around drinking beer and making jokes about alien cum and the benefits of getting off scot-free after hit-and-runs than they do maintaining vigilance in the face of what quickly turns out to be their town’s very own extraterrestrial infestation.
Clearly there’s a heap of dark comedy to be mined from the idea of concerned citizens who also happen to be nutjobs forming pseudo-vigilante groups in their communities. The idea to pit such a group against aliens doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything except the vague notion that aliens might make cooler enemies than innocent black kids. With the right touch, then, (say, that of Gordon Green, Wright, or Cornish) The Watch might have been timely, maybe even edgy. But under Shaffer’s unimaginative eye it simply manages to stamp the life out of talented comedians and a promising premise with a barrage of lazy jokes and a net of lazier plotting. It’s not exactly a cinematic crime to waste this much potential, but simply another of those two dozen (or so) movies made each year that nobody has any need to see.