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Review: 'The Watch' an uneven riff on suburban insecurities

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
July 27, 2012 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
Richard Ayoade, from left, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill team up as neighborhood watchmen in
Richard Ayoade, from left, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill team up as neighborhood watchmen in "The Watch."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "The Watch" stars Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill
  • Movie is "your typical buddy comedy sci-fi paranoia thriller," reviewer Tom Charity says
  • Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg from "Superbad" are among the screenwriters

Editor's note: This review may contain spoilers.

(CNN) -- I didn't know anything about "The Watch" going in -- somehow missed the trailers, interviews and TV spots that must have been out there. All I knew was the cast: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade, which seemed like a good start.

Stiller narrates the movie, takes no time at all to declare his Ohio town the best place in the universe and proudly introduces himself as the manager of a certain warehouse store that I won't name here (but which must have swallowed up half the budget, judging by the constant name-checking). Then, weirdly, the movie ditches the focus on Evan (Stiller) and stays with the store's night-shift security guard, a guy called Antonio who's celebrating becoming a U.S. citizen by helping himself to a little vodka and "Wild Things" on a dozen high-definition TV screens at once.

And suddenly, there's green gunk everywhere.

What on earth's going on? What kind of Ben Stiller movie is this?

These are legitimate questions, I think, but neither director Akiva Schaffer (from "Saturday Night Live" and "Hot Rod") nor screenwriting team Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg of "Superbad" and Jared Stern can muster entirely convincing answers.

The basic plot: Evan forms a neighborhood watch committee to solve the Antonio mystery, enlisting three misfit volunteers to the cause and soon enough comes face to face with the kind of illegal alien you're more likely to meet in a Ridley Scott horror movie.

In other words, this is your typical buddy comedy sci-fi paranoia thriller -- a lot like "The Burbs" and a bit like "Paul," which Rogen starred in and "Superbad's" Greg Mottola directed -- but with less in the way of quirky charm and a whole lot more jokes about male genitalia.

Anyone who saw "Superbad" knows the phallus looms large in Rogen's and Goldberg's comic imagination. But that movie was about hormonal adolescents. Apparently the specter of the penis is not diminished in the minds of middle-aged men.

Evan is, in his words, "shooting blanks," and can't bring himself to admit it to his ovulating wife (Rosemarie DeWitt). His partner in crime-busting, Bob (Vaughn), is equally obsessed with the condoms he sees his teenage daughter's boyfriend buying. As for the polite Englishman who joins them, Jamarcus (Ayoade), he just wants to join in a community activity -- and fantasizes about the sexual rewards that may accrue to a local hero.

That leaves Franklin (Hill), a dropout who failed to measure up in the eyes of town cop Sgt. Bressman (Will Forte), and who's willing to put on a dress and go all the way with a suspicious neighbor (R. Lee Ermey) just to prove his manhood.

These are all funny guys, and they do their best to make up for a slapdash script that must have taken all of a weekend to toss off. But Schaffer shows his inexperience by playing everything for laughs. Another director might have given us scares and suspense as well as these infinite riffs on emasculated men pretending to be cops.

The movie has one exceptional sequence, though it froze the smile on my face. Evan has killed his first extraterrestrial, and the guys decide to take photographic evidence -- a ritual that immediately descends into sexual simulation. It's a goof on the infamous Abu Ghraib photos, a moment of jet-black satire that's both subversive and tasteless. It's also much toothier than anything else in this flaccid movie.

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