Monday, July 30, 2012

Watch Out!

If there’s anyone in Hollywood whose star shines brighter than the others right now, it’s Channing Tatum. The 32-year-old actor has shown a massive rise in his showmanship in the past year, impressing in the underrated Haywire and legitimate hits The Vow and 21 Jump Street. Women (and some men) flocked to theaters to make his pseudo-biographical male stripper movie Magic Mike far more successful than it would have been without him. Even this summer’s sudden GI Joe: Retaliation delay was good for him; one of the given reasons for pushing the film back to next March was strengthening of his character (who was supposed to be killed off in the first scene) from the first film. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else having as big a year as he has enjoyed so far.

But Tatum is not 2012’s only success story, as I would be remiss to ignore Tatum’s Jump Street running buddy, Jonah Hill. Fresh off an Academy Award nomination for his role in last year’s acclaimed Moneyball, Hill has also come off strong, with an unspecified role in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, coming out this Christmas. But his biggest challenge to date (besides his failed solo comedy shot in the abysmal The Sitter) is how he stacks up in comparison to his fellow comedic actors. That’s where The Watch comes in, as Hill is teamed up with veterans Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, as well as imported talent Richard Ayoade. With such notables to be counted as his co-stars, Hill now has a chance to show that he can play with the big boys. This was certainly important, with the film formerly known as Neighborhood Watch needing to the best it could be to outshine some of the better R-rated comedies in recent years.

Actually, I think I'm MORE threatened by having them on the street...
Unfortunately, The Watch never manages to break free of its own limitations. I admit that this was always the probable outcome; where Stiller and Vaughn go, laughs rarely get more sophisticated than repeatedly-referenced penis jokes and outrageously vulgar sexual commentary. That gets multiplied tenfold when you allow Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (the team behind Superbad) to pen the script, which ultimately changed the focus of the story from a more family-friendly Ghostbusters-light to something that would be right at home at one of Emperor Nero’s celebrations. We’re often subjected to the same joke over and over again, and as you can probably predict, the goodwill fades fast. With the same deliveries that Stiller and Vaughn have given in each and every one of their films, there’s almost enough here to condemn the movie right here and now as nothing beyond ordinary, even with its alien invasion storyline and adult content.

They might have just committed intergalactic murder.
 At least the characters and their motivations are unique enough to stand on their own, with or without the talent of their performers. Stiller’s Evan is a goody-two-shoes Costco (who obviously were happy with their film presence) manager who starts the Neighborhood Watch in response to the brutal murder of one of his employees and friends. This is typical Stiller, so square that he rests comfortably between the extremes of Derek Zoolander and Roger Greenberg with ample elbow room. The film calls for Stiller to play the straight man to his fellow co-stars, and he’s a competent, if not altogether entertaining lead in that capacity. I’m really not a fan of Vaughn, and The Watch expresses why perfectly, as he once again plays the Alpha Male man-child with little actual likability. His one saving grace is the storyline featuring his teenage daughter, played by Erin Moriarty. Their believable and hilarious interactions make up for much of Vaughn’s immature behavior, redeeming the character more than a little. Hill and Ayoade end up the standouts, though unfortunately not to the level that they need to carry this film. Hill’s high school dropout and police force reject is fun in that psychotic mix of Travis Bickle and Patrick Bateman, managing to charm even as he scares you just a little. And Ayoade brings something different to the table as a recently immigrated divorcee who joins the Watch as part of a scheme to get sex. Other standouts include Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte as the head of the local law enforcement, Rosemarie DeWitt as Evan’s wife, and Watchmen’s Billy Crudup as Evan’s creepy new neighbor.

This interrogation brought to you by Costco.

And to be fair, the film has its moments, though they are often dulled by the crude nature of the script’s attempts at humor. The secret is in The Watch not taking itself all that seriously, which makes all the difference in the world. This is the one success of director Akiva Schaffer, who could have easily made this movie into something like the travesties that were Bad Teacher and Machete. The Watch is certainly not a GOOD movie, but it is entertaining when it wants to be, from an alien’s description of Costco (“You really DO have everything we need under one roof.”) to R. Lee Ermey spouting off in his best Full Metal Jacket persona, to the group’s ludicrous plans with which they ALMOST follow through. The four men work well together, with their disparate characteristics often coming into conflict with one another, creating endless possibilities for where conversations can go. Sure, it too often dwells in the nether-regions, but The Watch doesn’t do too badly for never quite reaching its potential.

Well, what would YOU do with a fire-spitting orb of doom?
The movie’s action brief action sequences are also something of a respite from the sometimes dreary attempts at humor and bromance, recalling those Ghostbusters comparisons I mentioned earlier. Though the quartet are often being shown out of their element against an alien invasion, they are really no different than those jumpsuit-wearing heroes of the eighties in that they work through tension to team up and make good things happen. The action both looks cool and silly, seamlessly blending what you might see in Independence Day with MacGruber, but better than I made that sound. It’s funny, it’s ridiculous, it’s unbelievable… and it works.

Happier times for Hill...
 Sadly, The Watch can do little to stand out in a year featuring other (and in some cases better) R-rated fare, with Friends with Kids, Project X, and even The Dictator ranking higher. Of course it’s nowhere CLOSE to 21 Jump Street, though that (and Hill’s performance within) might be the best adult comedy you’ll see all year. Though he succeeds at times, Schaffer needs to work a bit more on his storytelling (getting away from Saturday Night Live would probably help) before he tackles another major motion picture, as what The Watch really needed was an experienced hand to steer the ship away from the blatant vulgarities of Rogen and Goldberg. It’s not a bad time spent at the theater, and with so few new films out right now, I’d be a decent third or fourth choice. If you’ve had your fill of The Dark Knight Rises or The Amazing Spider-Man, you could do a whole lot worse. The problem is that you only need visit Netflix or your local video store to find just about anything better.

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