A race of hostile aliens and a crew of suburban crime-spotters have close encounters of the dumb kind in “The Watch.” A lowbrow, lame-brained mash-up of buddies-on-patrol comedy and sci-fi actioner, held together (barely) by an endless string of penis jokes, this exercise in high-concept vulgarity boasts a solid cast with a sharp sense of improv, the effect of which is to make the various domestic subplots and product placements feel like even more of a waste of space. Lead pairing of Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn should put plenty of eyes on “Watch,” spelling solid but not out-of-this-world B.O.
Greenlit in 2009 with Will Ferrell and director David Dobkin attached, the R-rated Fox laffer has endured an unusual number of development/production challenges for a studio comedy, including a cast overhaul, a thorough reworking of Jared Stern’s original script by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and the eventual attachment of “Hot Rod” helmer Akiva Schaffer to direct. Until just two months ago, the pic was set to be released under the title “Neighborhood Watch,” which was altered to avoid associations with George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer recently charged with murder in the Trayvon Martin case.
Coherence and continuity are scarcely top priorities for this sort of scrappy enterprise, and “The Watch” seems to have emerged from its travails unscathed but uninspired. What’s onscreen feels as half-assed and juvenile as it was probably always envisioned to be, suggesting an umpteenth retelling of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” by way of “The Hangover,” or perhaps a far less inspired version of “Attack the Block” transplanted to small-town Ohio.
Straight-laced model citizen and Costco manager Evan (Stiller) springs into action when one of his warehouse security guards is found horribly murdered. Dissed by the investigating police sergeant (the reliable Will Forte), Evan announces he’s starting a neighborhood watch group, assembling a bumbling band of volunteers: rowdy family man Bob (Vaughn); screw-loose, switchblade-wielding bachelor Franklin (Jonah Hill); and mild-mannered, recently divorced Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade).
All these guys seem more interested in guzzling beer and goofing off than in protecting the town, to the uptight Evan’s chagrin. But bonds of solidarity form when, after a series of failed stakeouts and false alarms, the group stumbles on evidence of an alien invasion — namely, a puddle of green goo that has the same consistency as human seminal fluid. That brilliant deduction is made by Vaughn’s verbally incontinent Bob, leading the charge to push the pic’s sensibility as far into the gutter as it can go.
Vaughn’s steady, semi-improvised stream of mostly groin-focused gags steals what laughs there are, forcing his co-stars into a reactive posture. Stiller remains stuck in his familiar uptight, straight-man mode, while Hill gets some memorable moments seemingly by voicing whatever sociopathic utterances leapt to mind on-set. By far the freshest face and most offbeat casting choice is British multihyphenate Ayoade, whose mellow, nerdy-funky appeal reps one of the pic’s few novel aspects, even if it never pays off with a characterization as distinctive as his role on “The IT Crowd.”
These four guys make pretty decent company; their back-and-forth amuses in bits and spurts, though scarcely enough to sustain a concept that feels unduly protracted at 101 minutes, the last 20 of which are devoted to a routine action-movie blowout. Apart from one legitimately funny sequence that sees the group getting a bit too friendly with an alien corpse, the action-comedy hybrid never hits the sweet spot.
Typically for this sort of frathouse-mentality romp, the humor flows with weird ease between offensive and reassuring, between crude ethnic jabs and soothing family-values uplift. The Latino characters are there to be disemboweled as quickly and gruesomely as possible (Joseph A. Nunez does the honors as the first victim), and women exist to be protected or consoled, as seen in subplots involving Bob’s rebellious teen daughter (Erin Moriarty) and Evan’s long-neglected wife (Rosemarie DeWitt, who, not unlike her character, deserves better).
From the functional lensing to the over-emphatic soundtrack choices, tech credits are nothing special, though the creature designs and death-ray f/x prove more than serviceable for the pic’s needs. Helmer Schaffer has a brief cameo with his Lonely Island collaborators Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone in an orgy sequence presided over, rather randomly, by Billy Crudup.