The Watch Review: 20 Years Later, and Ben Stiller Still Doesn't Understand the Role of a Straight Man
You know that idiomatic scene present in every action-comedy featuring lame suburban white men, Seth Rogen, or Danny McBride? The faux-bad ass slo-mo sequence set to gangster rap that features doughy Caucasians strutting like they own the fucking place? Used sparingly, it can be effective, and perhaps never more so than the printer sequence in Office Space. Unfortunately, it’s apparently the only technique that Akiva Schaffer (Hot Rod) knows: 30 percent of The Watch is that very scene played out in different suburban settings. It’s also fairly representative of the recycled ideas and tropes mashed up into The Watch, what I can only assume was once a clever suburban satire defanged and mashed by studio executives into a bland paste of dick jokes and faux bluster. Also, aliens.
It’s not that The Watch isn’t without its occasional moments. I can still get jazzed when Vince Vaughn goes on one of his rat-a-tat tears, and it almost doesn’t matter what he’s saying when he’s in a rhythm. Here, he plays Bob, an overprotective Dad with the sense of fun of an aged frat boy. He plays brilliantly off of Jonah Hill’s Frank, a psycho Full Metal Jacket wannabe with a switch blade in his pocket and a hidden stash of weaponry under his mattress in the house he shares with his mom.
Unfortunately, whatever brief swatches of life that the Vaughn and Hill interplay bring to the The Watch are almost immediately stamped out by the wormhole where comedy goes to die: Ben Stiller. Stiller plays the lead in The Watch, a Type-A control freak with zero sense of humor and a disproportionate reaction to everything around him. In other words, he plays the same Ben Stiller character he’s been playing in studio comedies for two decades. It’s not that the character couldn’t have worked, and in a script written by Seth Rogen and his usual writing partner Evan Goldberg (along with a studio hack, Jared Stern (Mr. Popper’s Penguins)), you have to imagine it was written with someone else in mind (In fact, Will Ferrell had originally been cast). Ben Stiller is a bottomless pit of suck. He has no real talent for the straight man. Stiller doesn’t seem to understand that the role is the most difficult one in comedy, and that a straight man actually needs to bring something to the table other than autistic idiosyncrasies. Jason Bateman, for instance, understands the straight man: It’s more than being the buzzkill. You have to bring your own wisecracks, you have to create humor and not just react to it. Stiller kills it; he’s like a death force that sucks the life out of comedy.
It doesn’t the help, of course, that suburban comedy and alien invasion is not the most natural of genre mash-ups. The characters in The Watch, however, don’t really treat aliens as a bigger threat than typical mall thugs, and that disconnect helps to crater the whole messy endeavor. The film centers on Evan, a Costco manager in a quiet suburban Ohio town. His night guard is killed under mysterious circumstances, so Evan rounds up a neighborhood watch group tasked with “getting to the bottom of things.” That group includes Bob, Frank and Jamarcus (a criminally wasted Richard Ayoade), who stumble upon an alien invasion and seek to stamp it out, all the while dealing with Bob’s party-girl daughter, a creepy neighbor (Billy Crudup), and Evan’s sterility. Strangely, the movie deals with all four issues with an equal amount of urgency.
The whole movie feels a bit like the suburban cousin to the already underwhelming Paul. In fact, it’s a configuration of the same characters only instead of a RV road trip with some doobies, The Watch is content to stay in Ohio with cans of Budweiser. Ultimately, the two movies travel the same buddy-movie terrain. But Paul had Jason Bateman, The Watch has Ben Stiller and, mediocre storyline aside, that makes all the difference in the world.