Timing is everything in comedy. When a neighborhood-watch volunteer was charged with shooting and killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martinearlier this year — in real life, that is — 20th Century Fox changed the title of its forthcoming comedy from "Neighborhood Watch" to"The Watch"so as to disassociate.
I saw the film, starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade, who is the reason it's not entirely lame, with an audience. It's unlikely many had Trayvon Martin on their minds as they watched these four blasting aliens and trading a stunning number of jokes relating to testicles of various species. (Jared Stern's original draft started out in development skewing young-ish, but by the time raunchmeisters Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Justin Theroux got on board and rewrote, it became an R.)
But following the Aurora, Colo., movie theater massacre, the scene of Hill (playing an erratic wannabe police officer) revealing his secret bedroom weapons cache to his pals, or the sight of Stiller and Vaughn firing and refiring and re-refiring their handguns into the body of a long-dead alien ... well, that second bit almost works, through sheer, hammering repetition. But it sticks in the craw. The whole movie does.
It's a matter of both kinds of timing: the timing filmmakers can't do anything about, and the timing they can. “The Watch” views citizen-vigilantes as a natural, planet-saving extension of Americans' need to take the law into their own hands. A general manager at the small-town Ohio Costco store, Stiller's character lives in a house whose massive square footage seems at odds with the salary of a Costco general manager. (Like so many films these days, this one was shot largely in suburban Atlanta.) Civic-minded though a bit of a control freak, he forms a neighborhood watch to track down the killer of a second-shift security guard, who is found, skinless and quite dead, inside his Costco.
Vaughn's character provides the man-cave and the beer and the parental anxiety over his teenage daughter. Hill's steely loner provides the unwanted associations to recent tragic events. And Ayoade provides the grace notes. Lanky, mellow-voiced and easy comic company, the British comedian and actor is well-known in England for a “Big-Bang”-y sitcom (“The IT Crowd”) and for directing a really terrific coming-of-age comedy, “Submarine.” The excellent Rosemarie DeWitt does what she can as Stiller's wife, a.k.a. the plot complication. It's these five against aliens.
Much of the action takes place in the Costco, which brings up unfortunate memories of the old John Hughes movie “Career Opportunities,” which took place mostly inside a Target. Director Akiva Schaffer helped create “I'm on a Boat,” “Lazy Sunday” and other sharp-witted short films seen on “Saturday Night Live,” so it made sense to hire him to loosen up a mechanical project such as this. Or try to, anyway. His formidable stars know how to muscle a script, any script, into giving up a few laughs. But it's Ayoade who brings something fresh. He appears to have wandered over from another film set, ready to mess around a little.
'The Watch' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for strong sexual content, pervasive language and violent images)
Running time: 1:42
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun