Monday, July 30, 2012

The Watch

Sometimes when a movie has a 15% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, yet 70% of the audience likes it, it’s the critics who are wrong. That’s the case with “The Watch,” a critical punching bag for 20th Century Fox that happens to have a lot of the biggest out-loud laughs of the year. The movie stars Ben Stiller as Evan, a Glenview, Ohio Costco manager and do-gooder about town who forms a neighborhood watch after a Mexican employee is mysteriously killed the night after he earns his U.S. citizenship.

The rest of the four-man watch consists of Bob (Vince Vaughn), a hypervigilant father who spends most of his time in his man cave (with actual Columbus Blue Jackets paraphernalia!) stalking his teenage daughter’s Facebook page; Franklin (Jonah Hill), who lives with his mom and was only rejected from the police force because he didn’t pass the exam, or the physical fitness evaluation, or the mental health assessment; and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), a British-accented bloke Evan’s especially glad to meet (“I don’t have any black friends yet,” he says in the intro, “but I’m eager to make one soon”).

The four discover a mysterious orb with about forty finger holes outside the home of crusty Manfred Salisbury. In this small part (total screen time maybe five minutes), R. Lee Ermey gets a handful of huge laughs, as he did in the equally underappreciated “Saving Silverman.” When the boys fit all their fingers in the holes, the orb, pointed at a cow across a field, lases the bovine and explodes it into a million bits. “That’s terrible for the cow,” Bob enthuses, “but this thing’s fuckin’ awesome!”

The orb leads the watch to a cluster of aliens, who have meanwhile killed a few more townspeople, tearing off their skin and trailing Nickolodeon-esque green slime. This is where the movie lost a lot of critics, who called it an uneasy mishmash of science fiction and buddy comedy. But the aliens are a red herring. (First of all, they’re the lowest-tech aliens this side of “DeepStar Six.”) The plot is just an excuse to have Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill riff off each other, with Ben Stiller functioning purely as a straight man. (Ayoade has a nice moment or two that suggest his comic potential for the future.)

The cold fact is, Vaughn and Hill deliver a lot of laughs. The wannabe-cop role reminded me of Hill’s co-starring turn in “21 Jump Street,” but there he had to work too hard, carry too much of the load. Both he and Vaughn may be best suited to meaty supporting roles, where they can take comic chances, react, sneak lines in quietly, almost under the movie’s breath. Together, their interplay showcases the best of their comic talents. That’s what “The Watch” is about, and anyone who doesn’t get it doesn’t get it.

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