A Neighborhood Watch Goes Alien-Hunting

Jul 27, 2012
Originally published on July 26, 2012 5:03 pm

The savings are never passed on to the consumer, but a little product placement has become standard practice for Hollywood movies — a pizza box here or a conspicuously angled soda can there, and few take notice. But product integration is another matter: If a movie has been explicitly designed to accommodate a sponsor, it's worse than just a commercial movie. It's a movie commercial.

The Watch concerns four neighborhood-watch guys from suburban Ohio who try to ward off an alien attack. But the fifth and most pivotal character is the warehouse superstore Costco, which hosts the opening and climactic effects sequences, provides employment and wealth for the leading man, and offers more solace and fun than you could possibly squeeze into your pantry.

"Everything under one roof," marvels Ben Stiller wistfully. Here the local Costco becomes a beacon of humanity, as significant to alien conquest as the White House in Independence Day. Perhaps this will be the start of a young-adult or comic-book series: "Costco Adventures."

When it's not engaged in serving its sponsor, The Watch is a second-rate Ghostbusters knockoff, which at least puts it ahead of Evolution, a third-rate Ghostbusters knockoff. Stiller dusts off his high-strung comic persona once more as Evan, a Costco manager who starts up a neighborhood-watch program after his night security guard is mysteriously killed on duty. Few people in the town respond to his call to action, and the ones who do are mostly looking for an excuse to get out of the house and enjoy some guy time.

Doing the umpteenth variation on his Swingers character, Vince Vaughn plays Bob, a reckless, fun-loving counterpoint to Evan's persistent wet blanket. Joining them are Franklin (Jonah Hill), a hyperintense and well-armed police-academy reject, and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), a soft-spoken but gregarious Brit given to curious non sequiturs.

The quartet suck down beers and skulk around town until they encounter a vicious alien with green slime for blood — another nod to Ghostbusters, or perhaps Nickelodeon — and catch wind of an invasion plot with their sleepy town as ground zero.

The Watch adds an awkward subplot about Evan's failure to get his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) pregnant, but it delivers that would-be heart-rending material with markedly less conviction than Stiller and Vaughn enthusing over a 3-D television at Costco. The film mostly lives or dies on the comic chemistry between the four watchmen, which is only fitfully funny and too reliant on the actors' abilities to improvise themselves out of a corner. The script, by Jared Stern and frequent writing partners Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, follows the Ghostbusters template closely, but they don't have anyone of Bill Murray's caliber to punch up the jokes.

The one exception is Ayoade, who's the least familiar of the cast members — to most Americans, anyway — but who's the most possessed of the Murray-like talent for pinging beasties with dry wit and delicious eccentricity. He's the lone wild card in a movie that gets little spontaneity from its well-fed stars and even less from a screenplay that's slavishly committed to formula. The Watch perks up when Ayoade's spacey line readings give it something unique and unexpected — otherwise, per Costco, audiences are buying their generic sci-fi comedy in bulk.

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