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The Watch

(2012) ** R
98 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Akiva Schaffer. Cast: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Rosemarie DeWitt, Billy Crudup.

/content/films/4377/1.jpgAccording to an old showbiz saw, the key to comedy is timing. Well, the new big-budget sci-fi comedy The Watch has a problem there. The laugher about a self-appointed “neighborhood watch” doing what the cops can’t comes just five months after a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida defied police and pursued, shot and killed an unarmed teenager. If and when the Trayvon Martin shooting ever becomes a distant memory, The Watch will be able to stand on its own, but for now, the net of reality has entangled this bit of would-be escapism.

For a while, even in spite of egregious corporate brand placement, The Watch appears to be an almost accidentally daring satire. Scripted by Jared Stern and Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, the picture opens with fussbudget hero Evan introducing us to “the greatest town in the greatest country on the greatest planet in the universe”: Glenview, Ohio. He doesn’t have any black friends, he tells us, but he’s in the market for one.

Evan likes to be involved, as a city councilman, doing highway cleanup, you name it. So when the big-box-store manager discovers his Hispanic security guard (Joe Nunez)—freshly anointed an American citizen—has been brutally killed (unbeknownst to anyone, by a space alien), Evan organizes a neighborhood watch with the intention of finding the murderer.

Enter hyperactive alpha-bro Bob (Vince Vaughn), police-reject Franklin (Jonah Hill) and the apparently biracial Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade of Britcom The IT Crowd), and the motley watch begins its nightly patrols. This would-be Ghostbusters puts stock in green goo and plentiful explosions to complement the comedy-team fireworks, but The Watch also chooses to make its in-over-their-heads heroes dumb instead of smart, then celebrates them anyway.

Part of the joke is that this inept bunch gets together and blithely commits crimes in the process of trying to foil them, and they become drunk on power whenever they perceive the tiniest of victories. Hill’s character particularly (and, again, accidentally) evokes trigger-happy wannabe George Zimmerman: ever-angry and constantly flicking his butterfly knife, Franklin lives with his mother and explains his failed bid to join the police force: “Apparently I didn’t pass the written exam or the physical exam or the mental health exam.”

As director Akiva Schaffer sticks “Straight Outta Compton” and “The Boyz in the Hood” on the soundtrack, The Watch parodies the middle-class middle-American male’s need to test and prove his manhood, to himself and others (also, Stiller’s character frets over not being able to give his wife a child). But the movie also buys into traditional masculinity: when Evan cries over the death of the security guard (accompanied by a Spanish cover of “Sounds of Silence”), we’re prompted to laugh.

Despite the amusing verbal riffs (most of them from still-got-it motor-mouth Vaughn) and expert delivery from all four leads, having its main characters both ways—horrifying yet heroic—ultimately sinks this scattershot exercise. A body-snatchers subplot brings to mind Rod Serling’s suburban-paranoia parable “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” but The Watch falls back on the convention of the inept heroes—spoiler alert—saving the day. Any other year, we probably wouldn’t bat an eye at that, but what’s the key to comedy?

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 11/13/2012

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Fox's Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack for The Watch delivers excellent A/V and a not-insignificant roundup of bonus features. Picture quality is tight, detailed, and richly colorful in its digital-to-digital transfer, with textures captured by and created by the camera (the latter being artificial fine film grain). The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix ably recreates the theatrical experience: the talky bits are clear enough, and this is a movie that occasionally goes boom, convincingly engaging LFE when it does so.

Bonus features kick off with twelve "Deleted Scenes" (24:39, HD) and a fleet but funny "Gag Reel" (3:41, HD). In a feature familiar to fans of Judd Apatow movies, we also get "Jonah Alternate Takes" (5:39, HD), a line-o-rama of Jonah Hill's improv punchlines. The behind-the-scenes featurette "Watchmakers" (12:16, HD) serves up the customary talking-head interviews and set footage, while "Alien Invasions and You" (1:48, HD) gathers sight-and-sound bites from cast and crew on the titular topic of facing a disaster from outer space. Rounding out the disc are the mockumentary featurette "Casting the Alien" (5:24, HD) and the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:27, HD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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