The bar is high for bad comedies, but “The Watch” promises to be this summer’s worst. It’s a muddled, jumbled scrapbook of a film that is bafflingly uncertain of what it is trying to be funny about.
There is a cast of oblivious imbeciles, gross-out misbehavior, crass bedroom farce and a science fantasy twist whose stupefying silliness is almost, but not quite, comic. It lurches from scene to dismal, rhythm-less, momentum-killing scene, tripping over its contradictions every step of the way.
Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and English TV comic Richard Ayoade play everyday guys who band together to patrol the streets of their town following a ghastly murder. That garishly visualized “comic” killing is just the first in a cascade of tonally jarring, badly judged routines.
Stiller’s character is the straight man, the wonkish manager of a big-box store who recruits volunteer investigators after the freakish death of his night security officer. His call to arms enlists three oddballs. Hill plays a loony-violent police academy washout looking for a chance to one-up the local cops and break some heads in the bargain. Vaughn is a jabber-jawed party animal who sees the team as drinking buddies and Ayoade, well, he’s not asked to do much except be quirky and English.
The script, written in part by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who scored with “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express,” feels strained and dashed-off. The plot’s big surprise is a twist straight out of “The X Files.” Yet when the four stooges realize what they’re up against, they unaccountably keep the earth-shattering news to themselves. While the squabbling goofballs have uncovered a threat that could mean planetary extinction, they’re more interested in their own interpersonal psychodramas.
The otherworldly menace offers first-time director Akiva Shaffer the opportunity to send chunks of flesh flying for comedic effect. In steadier hands, the spectacle of steaming intestines might have yielded riotous Grand Guignol. Charlie Chaplin has been quoted as saying, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long shot.” Shaffer, clueless about finding the proper point of view, shows the splatter up close and too long and kills the joke.
Still, Will Forte of “Saturday Night Live” brings crack timing and switchblade sarcasm to the small role of an antagonistic cop, and Billy Crudup does a shrewd turn as an eerily placid new neighbor. In the midst of this cartoonish, boring, almost completely terrible movie, they gave me fits of giggles. Maybe there’s a buddy cops vehicle for them out there somewhere?