What’s the most pertinent connection between Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughan, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade, with regard to their new ensemble comedy The Watch, other than the fact that they star in it together? It’s simple: they’re all funnier in other films (or TV in Ayoade’s case). The same can be said of the writing partnership behind the film, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who between them have penned films such as Knocked Up, Superbad and Pineapple Express.
That’s not a promising foundation for a comedy, and it doesn’t help that Akiva Schaffer (a Saturday Night Live alumnus) has put together a film that is so disjointed and bitty. It’s a Hollywood buddy comedy framed by the narrative quirk of a rather small-scale alien invasion, condensed for the purposes of humour (and probably also budget) to the town of Glenview, where stuffy Evan Trautwig (Stiller), in response to a gruesome murder, starts up his own neighbourhood watch.
Here we have the age-old problem of tonal inconsistency that haunts so many of these kinds of mash-up films. It’s possible, of course, to do action and comedy well together, but in films like The Watch, where the central gimmick of the alien invasion is borderline inconsequential, it often creates a sense of malaise in the plot that no amount of gags, successful or otherwise, can fully lift. And so we have a series of vignettes, some funny and some not, broken up by interludes of expensive and frankly unnecessary CGI. The film has not performed well in the US, and distributors Fox must be wondering if the alien invasion plotline was a bad call. Why spend so much money when the aliens are basically inconsequential? So inconsequential, in fact, that the film has enough leeway in its 100 minute runtime to divulge in subplots that serve as little more than excuses for comedy routines (a house party attended by Vince Vaughan’s character’s daughter) or deal with disconcertingly serious material such as infertility. The latter actually leads to a well-acted scene between Evan and his wife Abby (an underused Rosamerie DeWitt), but even that can’t help but feel out of place.
Stiller leads the ensemble but, by definition of the character he plays, gets the least purely comic dialogue. That’s mostly handled by Vince Vaughan – playing a riff on the semi-laddish, semi-annoying character we’re so familiar with now – and Jonah Hill, whose comic timing is as honed as usual but weakened by inconsistent material. Ayoade, who can be a very funny actor, seems a little uncomfortable in the presence of his co-stars, perhaps as a result of his position as the ‘fourth guy’ who doesn’t get as much to do, or anywhere near as much dialogue.
It’s not that The Watch isn’t funny – it semi-frequently raises a smirk, and gets one or two genuine laughs – but it’s so disjointed and unsure of what it wants to do that it ends up doing a bit of everything, with predictably erratic results. The film reportedly cost somewhere in the same region as Seth MacFarlane’s Ted, and the two films highlight precisely the ways in which costly CGI can benefit, or in this case detract from, a comedy film. In Ted, the titular CGI bear is the fulcrum around which the story hangs, and it works; in The Watch, it’s almost as if someone thrust some money onto a film that wasn’t aware it needed it, and thus didn’t know quite what to do with it. If the scenes between the four leads had been stronger, it might have been easier to overlook the film’s structural and tonal weaknesses, but as it happens they only rescue it in dribs and drabs.