Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
August 2012

The Watch

Watchboys

Talented cast of 'The Watch' is left hanging by completely toothless storytelling

The Watch
20th Century Fox
Director: Akiva Schaffer
Screenplay: Jared Stern, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Starring: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Rosemarie DeWitt, Will Forte, Billy Crudup and Doug Jones
Rated R / 1 hour, 41 minutes
Opened July 27, 2012
(out of four)

A critic friend of mine once described a certain movie (I don't remember which) as being seemingly made up of all the "in-between" scenes from a really good comedy - those transitional scenes that set up the most pivotal moments and the best jokes. I'm stealing that description to describe The Watch, a sci-fi comedy that, despite scathing reviews, isn't all that bad, except that it's never particularly good. If that makes sense.

If you were to stumble upon almost any individual scene from this movie on HBO one night, you wouldn't exactly be glued to your screen, but you'd expect that scene to lead to better things. It's just promising enough. Lots of good comedies have passable transitional/expository scenes that aren't especially funny in and of themselves, but simply perform a particular structural function in the service of the whole. Those scenes lead directly into better scenes. Except, in the case of The Watch - and, presumably, whatever movie my friend was reviewing at the time - that's all we ever get.

The big setpieces play like those in-between scenes. The big joke payoffs play like those in-between scenes. The climax plays like a series of those in-between scenes. It's all very watchable (no pun intended) but, even as foreplay, not especially exciting. There are enough funny bits - just bits - to convince us that the movie could, and should, be better than it is.

The best moments - when it starts to turn the corner and become a solid comedy - seem to come largely from improvisation. When a movie has the comedic talents of Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller and Jonah Hill at its disposal - not to mention Richard Ayoade and Will Forte - it's bound to have its moments. But that's all we get. Moments.

To me, the biggest misfire is the film's inability to really take comedic advantage of its high-concept ingredients. The Watch revolves around a makeshift neighborhood watch that happens to stumble upon the discovery of an alien invasion. Just based on that, there are plenty of directions the movie can go. Except it never really follows any of them.

The watch itself has been put together by serial community organizer Evan (Stiller), who sets it up in order to get to the bottom of the recent murder of one of his employees. His new partners in crime prevention, however, don't see this as a serious endeavor, but mainly as an excuse to get out of the house a couple nights a week and hang with the guys.

This, too, is an unfulfilled comedic opportunity. We get a fine setup of the straight-laced Evan having to blend with the charmingly frat-boyish Bob (Vaughn), the angry, mildly insane Franklin (Hill) and the cheekily sex-obsessed British neighbor Jamarcus (Ayoade), but after a couple of decent introductory scenes, we leapfrog past the bristling tension among the mismatched neighborhood watchmen and right into the plot mechanics. Which could be OK, except the plot mechanics have nowhere to go, either. The alien-invasion setup is as undercooked as it is dramatically inert. There's nothing to it.

You'd think a movie based entirely around the invasion premise would have had some idea what it wanted to do with the concept. But here, the writers seem to have stopped at: "Let's have it be about an alien invasion." But OK, if there's nothing much to it, fine - then surely the film gets a lot of mileage out of the aforementioned character dynamics in the neighborhood watch itself?

Nope. Director Akiva Schaffer and writers Jared Stern, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg don't know what to do with either of their two major components. Worse yet, they waste time on two other subplots - Evan and his wife Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) are trying to have a baby; Bob is going through some tension at home with his teenage daughter - whose resolutions are all too inevitable. Neither generates any real interest because we know exactly where both are headed, and that neither one has any real stakes, and that they're simply distracting us from the film's more important elements.

At its best, The Watch is a breezy buddy comedy whose intermittent delights come primarily from the cast. Hill, Vaughn, Stiller, Ayoade and Forte are all funny, but only in fits and starts. (Although possibly the best comedic performance comes from an uncredited Billy Crudup as a creepy, mildly sinister neighbor.) Problem is, the actors are carrying the picture on their own. They can only do so much. If the filmmakers ever for one second dug into their central premise and actually found something for the cast to work with, that'd be a different story. As it stands, the cast salvages as much as it can from the remnants of wasted material.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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