'The Watch' a sadly laughless comedy

atomictown.comJuly 30, 2012 

There is a special kind of awkwardness that comes from watching something fail to make you laugh.

Assuming that thing is a comedy, of course. Or a World War II documentary. I think those things have been serious for quite long enough. But there's something deeply sad about a comedy that isn't horrible enough to be obnoxious, yet isn't funny enough to provoke any actual laughter. It's like watching a 12-year-old claim they can hop on one foot, then when they try, they repeatedly fall down.

-- Local show times, theaters, trailer.

At first it's amusing, then it quickly gets sad. Soon, you're cheering for the most minor successes. But let's not lose perspective here. You're still cheering for one deeply uncoordinated kid, and your enthusiasm is a lie. That's how it feels to watch professional, successful comedians trying and failing to be funny. Eventually, you'll reward them with a chuckle just for trying, but you'll feel bad afterwards. I ran into this feeling an awful lot during The Watch.

Costco manager Ben Stiller takes great pride in his small Ohio town. But after a security guard at his store is brutally murdered, the police are clueless. Stiller takes matters into his own hands by forming a neighborhood watch to investigate the crime.

He quickly recruits Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade, none of whom take the watch remotely seriously. Until they discover the murder victim was killed by aliens. Aliens who've infiltrated the town's population. And only Stiller and his crew may be able to stop them.

This is an inherently comical situation. That's good, because The Watch is a comedy. At least, it's supposed to be a comedy. But there is something wrong with it. Actually, given that it doesn't come with free tostadas, there are at least two things wrong with it, but the relevant point is that its tone is off. It's almost like a group of aliens sat down to write a comedy, but they are aliens, and thus unfamiliar with what he humans call "laugh."

Which is odd, because I'm pretty sure two of The Watch's three writers aren't aliens. Not from outer space, anyway. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg might be Canadian, but as far as I know that is not yet another planet. I am suspicious of third writer Jared Stern, however. He also wrote Mr. Popper's Penguins. No human I know would willingly inflict that on his fellow man.

In any event, The Watch left me with the impression it was a very improv-heavy production. There is a lot of yelling and talking over each other. There are many semi-nonsensical jokes that just kind of have an improv feel, which I can't quantify in any way, but the possibility of being totally full of crap isn't about to stop me from making that claim. The problem is that, while many of these jokes are pointed in a funny direction, director Akiva Schaffer doesn't give them enough runway to get off the ground, by which I mean...

You know what, forget the metaphor. Point is, there weren't enough takes to get to jokes that are actually funny. As always, humor is highly subjective, but when the lights finally went up, I was shocked to see how many people there were in the theater. In that it was more than zero.

Let's see, I've trashed all over The Watch for several hundred words now, so what were the good points. Ayoade was funny. The concept had a lot of potential, as did several of its setups. There was a half-hearted effort to develop the characters.

It isn't quite a miserable experience. I wasn't praying for death. Not even for the people who made it. And perhaps I have gravely misinterpreted The Watch's tone -- perhaps it wasn't a comedy, but rather a dire warning of our upcoming invasion at the hands of anorexic Swamp Things. If it was meant to be a comedy, though, it's a pretty bad sign when the trailer had more energy and laughter than the full-length movie.

Grade: D+

* Contact Ed Robertson at edwrobertson@gmail.com. His fiction is available on Kindle, Nook, and through Smashwords.

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