The reasons why I continue this quixotic journey into the dark, dank recesses of streaming movies is because, once in a while, you turn up a lost gem in the Hulu Movie Cave. Oh, not this movie. Oh god no. But maybe some time soon I’ll find a good one. Imagine my joy when I stumbled upon The Watch (2012) a forgotten Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn/Jonah Hill Versus Alien Invasion comedy. Then imagine my displeasure when I discover why nobody remembers this movie, or has even seen it. Let’s check it out, shall we?
THE WATCH (2012)
Ben Stiller is the manager of a large supermarket chain that will go nameless, because it more than earned its product placement money with how much it’s featured in this movie. He doesn’t have any friends, and he’s looking to “get a black friend” as well. After the night watchman at his store is murdered by some unseen monster, Stiller decides to start a Neighborhood Watch. In Dodgeball fashion, they assemble a small team of motley losers and outcasts. Nuttiness ensues, oddball character actors have interactions with them, and then they meet hostile aliens. And it never gets very funny.
In 2012, Ben Stiller was on a weird losing streak that I would argue he still hasn’t climbed out of. This came out right after mega-bombs Little Fockers and Tower Heist, and the streak continues through Night at the Museum 3, and Zoolander 2, to the unseen by anybody but me Brad’s Status last year. They’re all fairly innocuous, but they’re not very funny and they’re not at all creative or interesting.
The Watch takes a potentially funny premise and does basically nothing with it. It’s a lazy movie, with a bunch of tiresome improv by Vaughn and Stiller playing bland characters. Stiller is his usual put upon schmo who we find out is sterile, which is causing a problem in his marriage. And Vaughn is the over-compensating divorced father of a teenage daughter. And this subplot steals its entire plot-line from Uncle Buck, including Vaughn rescuing his daughter from coitus with her scuzzy boyfriend. Then in a terrible scene, Vaughn gets his ass kicked by the scuzzy boyfriend on the front lawn of the standard movie house party. Mind you, I just saw the 6’5″ Vaughn mud-stomp a dude’s head off in Brawl in Cell Block 99, so this scene was hard for me to believe.
Jonah Hill doesn’t have any funny jokes and is miscast as a dullard delinquent with violent tendencies who still lives at home. Jonah Hill is best playing the smartest guy in the room and so he’s wasted here in a role that could be played by Justin Long or Matthew Lillard or someone of questionable talents. The joke is that he’s so dumb that Stiller and Vaughn pretend he’s a puppy in order to coax him to their side of their arguments.
Richard Ayoade is funny as the oddball member of a group with a very specific sex fantasy. He seems like he’s in a different movie, and it would’ve been great if these guys were all more strange like Ayoade. The movie owes most of its inspiration to Ghostbusters but didn’t learn any of that movie’s lessons on how to do things right.
There is one single funny scene that was spoiled by the previews where the guys accidentally kill an alien and then take a bunch of drunken selfies with the corpse. I laughed. But one funny sequence is usually not enough to recommend a movie, especially one with a hefty budget, and strong comedic talent up and down the cast. Will Forte and R. Lee Ermey (RIP) both pop up to play their normal characters. And Doug Jones continues his career as the physical embodiment of rubber monsters, as the alien.
The “by the numbers” plot has the guys get together and bond over hanging out and drinking beers. They have a playful rivalry with local cop Will Forte and, of course, Vaughn and Stiller have a falling out right at the end of the second act, only so they can bond again before the big finale. Nothing is done with the potentially funny idea of an impending alien invasion. In fact, most of the time it’s completely forgotten about for Stiller’s tired marriage plot and Vaughn’s teenage daughter soap opera. In a better movie, both of these women would play a bigger role in the alien plot, and actually have some agency and character quirks of their own. It all predictably ends in a giant shoot-out with two-fisted guns in slow-mo lifted from superior comedies Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, and Hot Fuzz.
The biggest problem for me is that the alien stuff is treated as a jokey afterthought, which I think was a mistake. The two best movies of this genre, Ghostbusters and Men in Black, treat the monsters as a serious threat and create whole histories and backstory about the aliens and ghosts they encounter. These guys just look like knock-off Predators and want to take over the world, starting at the “unnamed by me” supermarket. Ho hum.
THE BOTTOM LINE
With a cast this good, you’d expect it to be much funnier. All three leads have done much better work elsewhere. Jonah Hill’s career is on fire with Oscar nominations and hit movies. Vince Vaughn has carved out an interesting career as a movie tough guy in interesting failures like True Detective season two, and Brawl in Cell Block 99. I didn’t particularly like either of those projects, but Vaughn was trying new things. So what’s wrong with Ben Stiller? Did he forget how to be funny?
This movie is silly and unpretentious, it’s on Hulu for free, and there’s one funny scene and a couple chuckles, so it’s not a total waste of time. Is that a glowing recommendation or what?