Expanded version of a movie review in the Friday, July 27 Oregonian....
I have no idea what actually transpired on set * , but onscreen, "The Watch" plays like a bunch of talented comic leads getting together to make a high-concept hit for the studio; improvising bits endlessly to boost material that's a bit thin; and then landing maybe half the jokes because they weren't really all that inspired, or the chemistry was off, or the best stuff is on the editing-room floor, or the craft-services table was serving lentils that day. Who knows. The end result is mediocre, slightly sloppy and a mild waste of a great cast.
It's a shame, because the premise has potential, in an R-rated '80s-sci-fi-action-comedy sort of way. A manager (Ben Stiller) at a suburban Ohio Costco tries to put together a Neighborhood Watch after one of his security guards is killed and skinned. (Comedy!) The community-policing recruits are thin: a schmuck who just wants to party (Vince Vaughn), a failed wannabe cop (Jonah Hill) and a Brit whose politeness masks deadpan weirdness (Richard Ayoade).
They go on patrol (ineptly, in matching jackets with an amusingly dumb logo). They're mocked by the local constabulary. And, oh right, they uncover plans for an alien invasion of Earth they're ill-equipped to stop. Costco is abused mightily, leading to an ironic collision of product placement and explosions that nevertheless lacks satirical bite.
As is par for the course with this group of actors, "The Watch" feels largely improvised, particularly by Vaughn and Hill. Sometimes this connects. Sometimes -- as when Vaughn goes on for far too long about Russian nesting dolls -- it feels like filler. Unfortunately, enough of this stuff feels like filler that you start noticing how half-baked the actual story and characters are.
Stiller's character is selectively uptight -- he frets over procedure in one scene, but after he accidentally blows up livestock with an alien particle beam, he can shrug the whole thing off with a beer. And tacked-on dramatic subplots abound: Stiller's afraid to tell his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) why they can't get pregnant and Vaughn overanalyzes his daughter's Facebook page and yells at her and crashes her teen parties. Meanwhile, the movie leans desperately on pop-song soundtrack bumps to try and scare up audience emotions. Ayoade (who should really be spending his time writing, directing and/or acting in more brilliant stuff like "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace" and "Submarine" ) looks bemused and a bit lost.
So there's a fair bit of nonsense here. But mostly there's a great sense of waste. The film wants to play in the "Ghostbusters" paranormal-comedy realm, only with aliens -- and in an ideal movie universe, the stars of "Zoolander," "21 Jump Street,""Dodgeball" and "The IT Crowd" would make for pretty great ghostbusters. Unfortunately, this time around we got the stars of "Little Fockers," "The Sitter" and "Fred Claus." _____
* Actually, I have a slight idea -- more of a vague theory, really -- because I read "Funny is Money," Tad Friend's terrific profile of Ben Stiller and rumination on the state of the movie business in the June 25 New Yorker. I've been a fan of Stiller since "The Ben Stiller Show"; in Friend's epic piece, the actor comes off as perfectionist and slightly miserable -- stuck with being pigeonholed as the put-upon mainstream comic lead when he really wants to act in more stuff like "Greenberg" and direct more films like his smartly weird "Zoolander" and "Tropic Thunder." The implication in Friend's profile (at least as I read it) is that "The Watch" is the all-star profitable mainstream comedy Stiller is doing for 20th Century Fox (along with a possible third "Night at the Museum" flick) to gain leverage with the studio so they'll let him direct and star in an ambitious (and sort-of-expensive) adaptation of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Which, it must be noted, I can't wait to see. _____
(98 min., rated R for some strong sexual content including references, pervasive language and violent images) Grade: C
The Friday, July 13 "Cort and Fatboy" podcast is all over the place. Topics covered include: our shared love of the "Fat Albert" theme song; cool Cosby; blank-check Whedon; James Bond; superhero comics; "Star Trek"; Woody Allen; "North by Northwest"; all the great revival-house movie stuff happening in Portland right now; "Grosse Pointe Blank"; and much more.