Do not think that just because its name was changed, the movie formerly known as Neighborhood Watch has in any way been neutered. Granted, it does have some fertility issues, even within the plot, but those were there to begin with. You can rest assured that The Watch, as it’s now called, takes the maintenance of male genitalia very seriously.
Which seems a little weird given that it’s a comedy. But maybe that’s just the special signature of its auteur, director Akiva Schaffer, who made a movie five years ago called Hot Rod and also is responsible for the SNL Digital Short “Dick In a Box.” Now he wiggles his way through a raunchy script co-written by Seth Rogen, with perfunctory parts for Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill as self-appointed custodians of suburban safety who wind up warring with invading aliens. For no one involved does this seem like a career triumph. The Watch might just as easily, or maybe even more easily, have been made by a bunch of unknown guys who once got high together and had an eager conversation about how much they loved Ghostbusters, but then got distracted, possibly by masturbating.
Stiller plays the passively domineering manager of a suburban Costco, which turns out to be a focal point of product placement—oh, right, and also of sinister alien activity. As the designated drolly earnest straight-man, he convenes a neighborhood watch group, whose too-few enlistees include Vaughn, in his standard motormouth-bro mode; Hill, tetchy and self-effacingly creepy; and British TV star Richard Ayoade as a peppy odd geek out. There’s a twist involving Ayoade, which is that he’s fresher and funnier than everyone else in the movie.
That’s partly because Schaffer’s way of playing to his more familiar performers’ strengths is to take them shruggingly for granted. It’s hard to tell whether this has to do with feeling intimidated or just lacking inspiration, but it’s even harder to care. With a narrative strategy that seems mostly like wishful thinking, The Watch gets its laugh-out-loud moments to bloom by surrounding them with manure and hoping for the best. The overall experience is not exactly like strolling through a garden.
Helplessly, a few other people are on hand, including Will Forte as a clueless cop, Billy Crudup as a weirdo neighbor, and, as a patient wife, Rosemarie DeWitt, seeming as gracious as possible about getting the chore of her part in this movie over with. So really all that’s left are the dick jokes. And yes, as their man-cave banter reveals, emasculation aversion is important to these would-be macho vigilantes. It’s just not very interesting to the rest of us.
The title became The Watch after George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin in February; the movie itself, going through its motions of video-gamey violence and crass, common gags, maintains the integrity of its own dull indelicacy.