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 its 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, with a raunchy script co-written by Seth Rogen, and perfunctory parts for Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill, Schaffer delivers what might just as easily have come from a bunch of unknowns who got high together and spoke eagerly of loving “Ghostbusters,” but then got distracted and exhausted, possibly from masturbating. It’s a surpsingly delicate art, the funny science-fiction adventure of a group of goons. Or at least so it seems in view of the indelicacy that is “The Watch.”
Stiller plays the passively domineering manager of a suburban Costco, which turns out to be a focal point both of product placement and of impending extraterrestrial invasion. As a designated drolly earnest straight-man, he frets over public safety, and accordingly convenes a neighborhood watch. Enlistees are few and dubious. They 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 funnier than everyone else in the movie.
That’s partly because Schaffer’s way of playing to his more familiar performers’ strengths is to shrug and take them for granted. It’s hard to tell whether he’s intimidated or just lacks inspiration, but soon 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 resulting experience is not exactly like strolling through a garden.
Helplessly, a few other people are on hand, including Will Forte as a pugnacious cop, Billy Crudup as a weirdo neighbor, and, as a patient wife, Rosemarie DeWitt, getting her part over with like a put-off chore. It seems fair to say that no one involved has come away from this with a career triumph.
So what’s left but the dick jokes? As their man-cave banter reveals, emasculation aversion definitely is important to “The Watch”’s would-be macho vigilantes — more than alien-busting or anything else. It’s less important to the audience.
The title became “The Watch” after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in February, but that’s no matter: The movie itself, going through its motions of video-gamey violence and crass, common gags, maintains the futile integrity of dull impudence.