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'The Watch' review: Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn turn Alienbusters

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Released on Monday, Aug 27 2012


You know you've written yourself a cast of duds when Ben Stiller, at his most Stillerishly nebbish and bug-eyed, emerges as your most likable performer. He plays small-town, small-time busybody Evan in Akiva Schaffer's sub-Ghostbusters extraterrestrial comedy. Schaffer's best known as a long-time writer on Saturday Night Live, and much of The Watch plays out more like a series of sketches than a coherent whole - this being a problem only because very few of its punchlines are anything other than crushingly predictable.

After an employee gets gruesomely and mysteriously offed, Costco manager Evan decides to take action and form a neighborhood watch committee. His neighbours are all substantially less invested in the actual watching aspect of the group than he is: Vince Vaughn's knuckleheaded loudmouth just wants some buddies to drink beer with; Jonah Hill's high school dropout just wants to fulfill his law enforcement fantasies, and Richard Ayoade's fish-out-of-water divorcee just wants to get laid.

What's weird about The Watch is that nobody involved - not Schaffer, not co-writers Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Jared Stern, and not the cast - seems even slightly concerned about engaging the audience's sympathy.

Coming off his endearing turn in 21 Jump Street, Hill's angry, creepy slacker feels all the more inexplicably odious; the character is the comedic equivalent of a cold shower. Vaughn's Bob at least gets to be a loving father, and there's a requisite heartstring-tugging subplot about Evan's issues of inadequacy with his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt, in the definition of a thankless role), but you care only to the paltry extent that the film evidently does.

Ayoade, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the cornerstone that works best. He's such a weird addition to the familiarly boisterous Yank dynamic, and his line deliveries are so wildly, cheerfully out of step with the rest of the cast's broad pitch, that he succeeds almost by virtue of sticking out like a sore thumb. His dry offerings aside, the script's gags are alternately predictable and way over-extended - there's a beat involving Vaughn and a Russian doll early on that perfectly encapsulates the scribes' tendency to over-egg an initially decent pudding.

The Watch isn't smart enough to be witty, nor vulgar enough to be gross-out, nor daring enough to expand on its half-hearted exploration of suburban vigilantism.

Its marketing was affected by the real-life case of Trayvon Martin, a young man who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch captain in Florida, but there's little risk of anything here hitting too close to the bone. In fact, the best that can be said about Schaffer's wide-swinging approach is that it's inoffensive; the worst is that it's ineffectual.

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