By Christopher Lawrence
The fact that it arrives under the cloud of months of national debate and outrage doesn’t ruin “The Watch.”
The script does a good enough job of that.
But for the second weekend in a row, going to the movies isn’t as much fun as it should be as a result of violence unrelated to Hollywood.
It’s impossible to know if the comedy about a bumbling neighborhood watch patrol would be funnier had the world never been introduced to George Zimmerman.
Odds are, probably — but not by much.
The movie has nothing remotely to do with Trayvon Martin’s shooting. And the studio has done what it can to distance it from that controversy, renaming it from “Neighborhood Watch” to the generic “The Watch” — which just makes it sound like a low-budget horror flick about a haunted timepiece.
Still, it’s unlikely that the coincidence will ever be far from your mind.
Civic-minded Evan (Ben Stiller) waxes poetic about Glenview, Ohio, the way others do about Manhattan or Paris. He’s formed everything from the town’s running club to the Spanish table at the community center. And when he isn’t managing the local Costco, he has a thankless position in city government.
So when his store’s night watchman is brutally murdered, he makes an impassioned speech at the high school football game, posts hundreds of fliers and prints up manuals and multimedia displays, all for his new neighborhood watch program.
His efforts, though, inspire just three volunteers:
— Franklin (Jonah Hill), a gung-ho wild card with a butterfly knife who was rejected at every level by the local police because they didn’t see “the magic that was me.”
— Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade, British TV’s “The IT Crowd”), recently divorced and new in town, who’s mostly just hoping to meet a frightened Asian housewife.
— Bob (Vince Vaughn), who’s just looking for a few hours with the guys — even these guys — away from his wife and daughter.
After a low-stakes win — the gang apprehends one of several teens who egged them — they discover an unimaginable threat: Glenview is ground zero for a pending, cataclysmic alien invasion.
Because, why not.
“The Watch” gets so caught up in the thought of how great it would be to have these guys riffing off each other, it forgets to give them anything great to do.
The script — credited to Jared Stern, along with Seth Rogen and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg — largely just lets Stiller and Vaughn recycle their most frequent onscreen personae.
Stiller’s the uptight control freak; Vaughn’s the overgrown frat boy. And Vaughn, with only “The Dilemma” since 2009’s “Couples Retreat,” has plenty of pent-up Vaughniness to unleash.
“The Watch” seems to be aiming for high-concept, “Ghostbusters”-style laughs but mostly has to settle for small entertaining moments scattered throughout.
Along the way, there’s a little random silliness and some fun with action movie and alien invasion cliches. (Why do they want to destroy the planet? “We’re aliens. That’s what we do.”)
But much of it consists of raunchiness for the sake of raunchiness that’s never as shocking — or as funny — as the antics in “Ted.”
And there’s still the lingering, real-world unpleasantness. Movies are supposed to be an escape from reality. They ought to be, considering how much a night out at them can cost.
So say a prayer, make a wish, rub some crystals together while howling at the moon — whatever it is that you do, do it — in hopes that a trip to the cinema never again has to come with this kind of baggage.
Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas (NV) Review-Journal. Contact him at clawrence@ reviewjournal.com