MOVIE REVIEW: “The Watch”

Jonah Hill, Ben Stiller, Richard Ayoade, and Vince Vaughn in “The Watch.” PHOTO COURTESY 20TH CENTURY FOX

BY GEORGE GRELLA

“The Watch”

(R), directed by Akiva Schaffer

Now playing

Although obviously purely coincidental, the release of “The Watch” resonates disconcertingly with the recent occurrence in Florida, where a self-styled neighborhood watchman fatally shot a black teenager. The picture actually bases its action and meaning upon some of the apparent motivations of the accused shooter, most of which shouldn’t surprise anyone. The movie also suggests just how far Hollywood now pushes, or perhaps explodes, the boundaries of traditional cinema comedy.

The movie opens with a voice-over narration by Ben Stiller, who plays Evan, the proud manager of the Costco store in a complacent little burg in Ohio, declaring his love for his job, his company, his town, etc. When some unknown assailant murders the store’s security guard, and the local Keystone Kops exhibit a good deal of incompetence and a minimum of concern, Evan vows to track the murderer down. He announces at the high-school football game, to a most unsympathetic crowd, that he is forming a neighborhood watch to protect the public and find the killer, which initiates the film’s strangely ambiguous plot and themes.

Despite his appeal, only three volunteers show up to join the watch, each motivated by something far different from Evan’s expectations. Bob (Vince Vaughn) believes the group will provide a night out with the guys, complete with beer, pool, and sports on TV; Franklin (Jonah Hill), rejected by the police force for several obvious reasons, is the classic wannabe cop, a repressed mama’s boy spoiling to shoot somebody, anybody; Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade) hopes that when he responds to a call, a beautiful woman will perform an interesting sex act for him.

Mocked by the cops, insulted by citizens, and taunted by a bunch of punks, the four losers, under Evan’s officious leadership, doggedly pursue a number of dopey ideas and false trails until they actually discover the murderer — hideous aliens from outer space who travel from planet to planet devouring the inhabitants. Since nobody believes them, they find they must fight the monsters, who dwell beneath the Costco store, all by themselves. Their apparently hopeless climactic battle against hordes of the creatures employs enough special effects to propel the average science-fiction spectacular.

Naturally all sorts of comical material, much of it more silly than funny, appears throughout the course of the watchmen’s adventures, but the film also includes some oddly anomalous subjects for its ostensible form. Beyond the science-fiction and horror elements, the script exploits some other decidedly un-comic stuff, like several extremely bloody murders, one of them involving a kid, for example, and an eviscerated corpse, with a graphic shot of a gaping hole that the victim’s entrails once occupied, no doubt a first in the history of cinematic comedy.

The mixture of comedy, horror, and sheer gore far transcends the innocence of those old Abbott and Costello flicks, in which the immortal duo encountered such movie menaces as Frankenstein’s monster, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, and the Mummy. In another rather unusual touch, “The Watch” also includes what the ratings people call strong sexual content, in language and action, including a relatively explicit orgy scene with a variety of sexual options, including the fulfillment of Jamarcus’s fantasy.

Each of the four principal characters, no matter how dumb and self-deluding, undergoes something of a transformation through the various ridiculous adventures, each of course achieving the sort of resolution that the form demands. Beneath all the obvious material, the movie also exploits such uplifting subtexts as friendship, spousal communication, and father-daughter bonding.

Amid all the action and the quantities of nonsense, the four principals work quite well together, each carving out a particular personality and a particular comic identity, and together they embody the motivations of some amateur policemen. Ben Stiller nicely portrays a familiar type, the fussbudget busybody, while Jonah Hill, who now and then overplays, resembles every gun aficionado who decided to leave his home with Mom and shoot somebody (a sadly familiar type). The great surprise of the picture, Vince Vaughn steals most of his scenes, gets the best lines, and delivers his dialogue in an offhand, rapid-fire manner that seems unscripted and entirely natural; he undoubtedly constitutes the most entertaining element in “The Watch.”

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