Last weekend, the prospect of buying a movie ticket ceased being an automatic entertainment decision and became a juggling act with life or death on the line. Some deranged dude who had seen the carnage at a Colorado showing of The Dark Knight Rises could conceivably have gone copycat-crazy in a theater near you. Your theater, in fact. Finally, some 25 million customers weighed the risks and bought tickets. Yet when they watched the Batman film, they inevitably thought of the connections between Christopher Nolan’s apocalyptic fantasy and a remorseless sicko who slaughtered real people.
Now, though, they could use a chaser to that night’s concession-stand special of popcorn and hemlock. This weekend, many Americans will want to escape the emotional exhaustion of a nightmare of headlines and see a nice, raunchy, R-rated comedy. Well, The Watch stars Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill, all of whom have been funny at some point in their careers. The movie promises a high comedy hybrid, since it was concocted by the authors of Superbad and The Pineapple Express (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) and The Princess and the Frog and Mr. Popper’s Penguins (Jared Stern). The director is Akiva Schaffer, who with Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone constitutes the Lonely Island comedy group. For seven years, Schaffer produced some of Saturday Night Life‘s most invigorating video shorts. So forget your troubles, come on, get silly and see The Watch.
Actually, don’t. You’re unlikely to laugh much, and you may get an unexpected case of the non-art-imitates-bad-life creeps. You probably know the movie was originally called Neighborhood Watch, a phrase that lost some of its comedy zing last February when one real-life watchdog, George Zimmerman, shot the black teenager Treyvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. Cue the name change and the publicity highlighting the science-fiction premise of four guys trying to protect their town from an alien invasion.
That juxtaposition of a tragic news story and a movie already filmed but not yet released was an unfortunate coincidence. More questionable is The Watch‘s use, for comedy purposes, of a miscreant who murders ordinary folks and removes their skins so he can wear them — the MO of Jame Gumb, the Silence of the Lambs serial killer, whose aptitude for elaborate evil is mirrored in the handiwork of James Holmes in Aurora. And though a Costco in Glenview, Ohio, isn’t the Century 16 multiplex, The Watch‘s climax of a vigilante band sneaking into a warehouse store and shooting everything in sight — pumping an extra dozen rounds into one corpse — might make moviegoers wish that, for innocent escapism, they’d gone to see Step Up Revolution instead.
As a public service, to save wary viewers 100 minutes they’ll never get back, here’s what happens. Stiller — in TIME colleague Mary Pols’ apt phrase, “the consummate American schlemiel” — plays Evan, Glenview’s prime booster. The manager of the Costco store, Evan also organizes self-help groups to make new friends and avoid telling his sweet wife Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), who’s desperate to have a child, that he’s sterile. (Another great comedy premise!) When the Costco night watchman is killed, skinned and slimed, Evan forms a neighborhood watch. Three guys show up: blue collar businessman Bob (Vaughn), failed police aspirant Franklin (Hill) and recent divorcé Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade). None too pleased with the deficient caliber of his crew, Evan takes them on late-night patrols, which eventually lead to their alien encounters.
Four things that aren’t awful: the performances of DeWitt, playing a warm, borderline-complex character; Billy Crudup as Evan’s cheery-weird neighbor who is Definitely Hiding Something (Crudup’s avid smile looks like the rictus on a man who died happy with his dirty secret intact); and Ayoade. Born of a Nigerian father and a Norwegian mother, this British sitcom actor (The IT Crowd) sports the attractive crossbreeding of alien civilizations — a bonus for his role, it turns out — and a seraphic smile that Schaffer frequently cuts to for reaction shots. Good thing too, since as the one nonstar in the main quartet he is given very little dialogue for most of the film. Ayoade directed the insightful teen comedy Submarine; he should have been at the helm of The Watch, if he’d thought the project worth bothering with.
Actually, that’s only three points of recommendation — proof that The Watch doesn’t even meet the expectations of those who don’t like it. The movie could be worth sitting through if it were some grand disaster of a sci-fi–sex comedy. Instead, it’s a disservice to its trio of stars, who are forced to play diminished forms of their best roles (in, say, Greenberg, The Break Up and 21 Jump Street). Here, they are the fronts for an exhausted, exhausting reprise of stupid behavior, male-bonding clichés and penis jokes, which extend even to the aliens. The monsters’ goo, the watchmen decide after close investigation, tastes like semen. (“Yep,” says Vaughn, “it’s comely.”) How would they know?
All right, here’s a fourth good thing. Toward the end, the neighborhood watchers learn the aliens’ vulnerable spot when they are told, “Their brains are in their dicks.” See, they’re just like human men — at least, the men who misplaced their usual intelligence for comedy when they made this unwatchable botch.