Every few years, some wiseacre at a Hollywood studio tries to recreate Ghostbusters. It’s easy to see why. The formula seems simple enough: take a collection of popular comedians, put them up against a supernatural threat and watch the magical mix of comedy of special effects-driven blockbuster entertainment unfold. The thing is that no one has ever quite managed to find that magical mixture again, not even the Ghostbusters crew (Ghostbusters 2 is pretty “meh”). Men In Black came close, but even that franchise has been soiled by terrible, terrible sequels. However, this year a dark horse blockbuster comedy has quietly slipped on two screens that managed to beat Men In Black 3 at it’s own game for what was clearly a fraction of the budget. That movie is The Watch and while I won’t for one second pretend it’s as good as Ghostbusters (that’s just madness. Few comedies in general are that good) the movie is definitely worth a look. Though undeniably flawed, this ramshackle flick does at least manage to mix laughs and sfx spectacle with a far higher success rate than should have been possible.

Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon

Ben Stiller stars as his usual uptight type-A personality working in a demeaning job, in this case as a Costco manager. He loves his small town and especially loves starting up clubs he can lead to feel empowered. However, his true calling doesn’t officially arrive until the night watchman of his Costco is killed and skinned one night and the idiot local police (led by the always hysterical Will Forte) can’t seem to do anything about it. So Stiller decides to start up a neighborhood watch program and ends up finding three guys as lonely as desperate for excitement as he is. There’s Jonah Hill as a mamma’s boy with a butterfly knife and obvious mental issues, Vince Vaughn at his most Vince Vaughniest, and little known British cult comedy icon Richard Ayoade as a straight up weirdo. Together the hold stakeouts, investigate clues, and of course great trashed and become buddies. One night they discover that the murderer is an alien and everyone in their town could potentially be one as well (that’s why everyone who is murdered loses their skin. Disguises people! Disguises). At that point, there’s only one thing for the group to do, kick as much alien butt as possible and crack a few one-liners while doing it.

Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon

Stiller, Vaughn, and Hill all have very well established screen personas at this point and deliver exactly what you’d expect. Unfortunately the shtick that made all three of those gents famous is getting increasingly tired and the hit-to-miss ratio of their never-ending improv sessions can be a little rough. That said, they all reached their star status for a reason and deliver more than enough gut-punch funny scenes (like when they pose for photos with an alien corpse) to justify to misfires. The real stand out in the central cast is Richard Ayoade who brings a unique sense of timing and characterization to the party that the stars just can’t offer anymore. Were it not for the fact that The Watch probably won’t be very successful (it is coming out right after Dark Knight Rises after all and nothing will beat that this weekend), it would be the kind of role that will kick off a Hollywood career. That ain’t going to happen, but hopefully he’ll get noticed and plopped into another movie where he can steal some scenes. The guy deserves it. The other big stand out in the cast (other than scene stealing work from Will Forte and Rosemary DeWitt as her usual charming best as Stiller’s hapless wife) is surprisingly the alien. I say that not because the alien is a memorable comedic character, but because it’s actually played by monster specialist Doug Jones in make-up rather than in CGI. The design is familiar to anyone who has seen a sci-fi movie over the last 20 years, but the effect of having an actual physical alien threat onscreen rather than just CGI cartoon (don’t worry, there’s still plenty of that to go around) is remarkable. It’s easier to by this alien than the Giger stand in and the end of Prometheus and I don’t think anyone thought that The Watch would top that movie alien fx wise, probably not even the folks behind this ragged comedy.

In the director’s chair is Akiva Schaffer of Lonely Island/SNL fame. He was a wise choice for the project since he’s one of those few comedy directors with a knack for visual storytelling. That’s key for a comedy genre mashup, as you have to be able to nail the laughs and generate at least a little atmosphere. Schaffer is predictably more comfortable with comedy than suspense/scares, but can execute those scenes well enough to be effective. “Effective” is probably the highest level of praise that’s appropriate to slather over The Watch. This isn’t a brilliant comedy (the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg script has so many dick jokes it’s almost as if they had a contest to see how many could be shoved in) nor is it a revelatory work of genre filmmaking. However, the talent behind the project managed to deliver competent levels of both, which collectively raises the movie just above average.

The movie ain’t Ghostbusters, hell it isn’t even Men In Black. However, considering how bad special effects comedy movies can be (have you seen Evolution?), this thing squeaks out just enough decent sequences to qualify as a success. It’s definitely a movie that benefits from diminished expectations so don’t expect much and given the complete lack of hype surrounding the project, I don’t think that’s an issue. However, go in with an open mind and at least memories of how you used to anxiously await a new Stiller, Vaughn, or Hill comedy and you’ll have a decent time. It’s a shame all of the major talents involved couldn’t combine for more than a slightly above average comedy, but given all the crap that sneaks onto screens with that label inappropriately slapped across it, things could have been so much worse.

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