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'The Watch' not as funny as it should be

1:24 AM, Jul. 27, 2012
Jonah Hill, Ben Stiller, Richard Ayoade and Vince Vaughn are a blockwatch team ill-equipped for what they run into in 'The Watch.'
Jonah Hill, Ben Stiller, Richard Ayoade and Vince Vaughn are a blockwatch team ill-equipped for what they run into in 'The Watch.' / AP
This film image released by 20th Century Fox shows, from left, Ben Stiller, Johnny Pemberton and Jonah Hill in a scene from 'The Watch.' (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Melinda Sue Gordon) / AP

‘The Watch’

Star rating:★ ★
Rated: R for some strong sexual content including references, pervasive language and violent images.

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Gather a genuinely talented comic team and give them a sloppy, lazy script to work with and what do you get?

“The Watch,” basically. If you want a descriptive term, “disappointment” should cover it. There are some laughs, certainly — put Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill, Vince Vaughn and Richard Ayoade together and just let them go (which seems like what happens about half the time) and you’re bound to get something funny every now and then.

But Akiva Schaffer’s film doesn’t have enough laughs, or enough story, to maintain any sort of consistent momentum. Instead it meanders through distracting subplots and sputters along, unsure how to proceed once it arrives at the main idea: that aliens have landed on Earth and, through means that would make Jame Gumb from “The Silence of the Lambs” proud, disguised themselves as humans. An inept neighborhood watch group figures out what’s going on, but appears to be ill-equipped to do anything about it.

Stiller plays Evan, who has worked his way up to managing the Costco in the suburb in which he lives. He’s conscientious to a fault, running around town and starting clubs as a sort of substitute for real friendship. But one night a grisly murder takes place at his store, and Evan dedicates himself to starting a block-watch program to solve the crime. (The movie was originally called “Neighborhood Watch,” but Twentieth Century Fox changed the name after the Trayvon Martin case prompted national outrage.)

The only takers for the program besides Evan are Bob (Vaughn), a party-hearty father of a teenage daughter; Franklin (Hill), a possibly dangerous police-academy wash-out; and Jamarcus (Ayoade), who wants to meet new people. It takes way too long to get going, but the hapless group eventually stumbles upon the truth about the murder, and the larger plot: aliens.

Schaffer, working from a script written by Seth Rogen, among others, doesn’t seem to know what to do after that. So meanwhile Bob must tend to his randy daughter, who posts make-out sessions on her Facebook account, while Evan deals with his wife, Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt, always delightful), who wants to have kids. These tangential scenes bring the alien plot line to a screeching halt. There’s also a bit with a creepy neighbor (Billy Crudup), as well as control issues to be dealt with.

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Why? The film is best when its main characters are playing off one another as they try to figure out first what is going in their town, and then what to do about it. Drinking beer in the back of a car in the middle of a stakeout might not be typical block-watch behavior; at least it probably shouldn’t be. Throw in the addition of Vaughn’s Bob really, really having to go to the bathroom but not wanting to blow their cover and, well, there’s something there.

Schaffer just has a hard time capitalizing on it.

Evan and Sgt. Bressman (Will Forte), a moronic police officer, represent two small-town archetypes — the over-eager busybody and, well, the moronic police officer. Far too much attention is paid to that, at the expense of developing the alien story.

Stiller and Vaughn have been better, often. Hill emerges as the best of the lot, and something of a secret weapon — truly, does he ever give a bad performance? (And yes, I saw “The Sitter.”) His profane asides and behavior around Abby alone boost the film a notch.

“The Watch” needs it. It should be funnier. It should be better. Instead, it just sort of is.

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