If you make a comedy with four overgrown adolescents as your leads, throw them together, and let them run amok, chances are that the result will be a lot of juvenile behavior and, if the characters are played by modest comic talents like Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade, at least a few genuine laughs. Laughter and inanity go hand in hand in Akiva Schaffer’s The Watch, in which the aforementioned quartet play Ohio suburbanites who form a neighborhood vigilante group and end up stumbling on an alien (in the Ridley Scott sense) conspiracy.
When uptight Costco manager Evan (Stiller) finds the night watchman at his store brutally murdered, he takes matters into his own hands, forming a neighborhood watch group and soliciting membership from the townspeople. Only three people show up, boisterous Bob (Vaughn), less interested in solving crimes than in having a boys’ night out, semi-psychotic Franklin (Hill), hoping to get back at the local police force for rejecting his application, and good-natured Jamarcus (Ayoade). They bond over beers (after finally convincing uptight Evan to partake) and begin staking out the Costco for any leads they can find.
Much of the laughs in the early going derive from the ridiculousness of the idea of a neighborhood watch. Both the characters (in their inferior role as law-enforcement civilians) and the actors (as comic performers) are continually upstaged by a pitch-perfect Will Forte as a local policeman who finds them to be both a perpetual annoyance and an object of fun. But there are only so many yuks to be derived from the absurdity of the four men’s enterprise and the film, which increasingly moves into science-fiction territory with the discovery of the aliens, lacks the comic invention to keep things fresh, and so the quartet’s antics soon become tiresome.
But what’s perhaps most off-putting about the movie isn’t its increasingly stale humor, but the way it ultimately validates its characters’ worst impulses. Anxieties about masculinity have become a common theme lately in screen comedies and The Watch is no exception. Evan conceives the watch, at least partly, as an escape from his home life, where he’s so humiliated by the fact that he’s biologically unable to impregnate his wife that he’s kept his infertility a secret from her for over a year. If shooting blanks is Evan’s hang-up, then his daughter’s sexuality holds a similar place in Bob’s life, to the point that the man follows his teenage girl’s activity on Facebook to make sure she’s not screwing anyone.
But, in the end, both men are validated in their attempts to overcome their sense of emasculation. Evan may have to confess his deception to his wife, but she’s not only totally understanding, she even joins the watch, whose antics move from the ridiculous to the necessary as they single-handedly stop an alien invasion, even forcing Forte’s representative of legitimate law and order to praise the group’s vigilante action. In light of the Trayvon Martin shooting, this seems a somewhat dubious proposition, especially given scenes in which Evan definitively asserts his manhood by firing extra rounds into the body of an already dead alien.
Somewhat more troubling, because it’s not tempered by a distancing dose of sci-fi, is Bob’s ultimate assertion of his own masculine authority. Learning that his daughter, Chelsea (Erin Moriarty), will be attending a house party where her smarmy would-be lover will likely also be present, he crashes the get-together and begins looking for his daughter. All of this would be little more than another round of comic absurdity, except that, moments before Bob breaks through the bedroom door to find his daughter in bed with the skeezoid, we see the latter coming on way too strong while Chelsea tries vainly to resist. Thus, rather than continue to present Bob as a desperate, almost psychotic figure, the film casts him in the role of savior, arriving just in time to prevent his little girl’s ravishment. But this is only the most extreme example of the film’s working method: gently ridicule dangerously regressive, juvenile behavior, only to recast those actions as something like genuine heroism.