I hereby place Ben Stiller on my no-fly list.
Descended from a distinguished clan of comedians, Stiller was a smartly subversive voice in the years between “Reality Bites” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” But on the weekend after 9/11, his then-new movie “Zoolander” was the first comedy to retreat from the public arena, with a canceled premier and minimal advertising. Notwithstanding some edgy exceptions (“Meet the Parents,” “Tropic Thunder,” “Greenberg”), his output in the past decade has bounced between softball satires like “Starsky and Hutch” and feckless family flicks like “Night at the Museum.”
With “The Watch,” Stiller steps into several piles of poo, including the sticky issue of vigilantism that might have been funnier before the Trayvon Martin shooting — and before the script got twisted into a sci-fi farce.
Stiller is back in his regular-guy guise as Evan Trautwig, the friendly manager of a Costco superstore in idyllic Greenview, Ohio. When the store's late-night security guard gets ripped to shreds by an intruder, civic-minded Evan forms a neighborhood watch group. The other volunteers are party-hearty househusband Bob (Vince Vaughn), angry wannabe-cop Franklin (Jonah Hill) and horny foreigner Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade of the IFC import “The I.T. Crowd”).
It soon becomes apparent that the killer on the loose is not quite human; but I won't reveal the secret — not because it's clever, but because it's such a criminal bait-and-switch from the ad campaign that I don't want to be guilty by association with it. Let's just say that the movie would have been better off as the R-rated spoof of suburban paranoia it pretends to be than the stupid special-effects farce it actually is.
Although Vaughn, like Stiller, has been coasting on his reputation for years, it's sad to see recent Oscar nominee Hill (“Moneyball”) strike out on such weak swings. And Ayoade, who directed the smart and stylish British indie “Submarine,” capsizes his American career before it gets launched.
If this movie wanders into your neighborhood, the only watch that will hold your attention is the timepiece on your wrist.
Two stars out of four • Rating R • Run time 1:40 • Content Sexual themes and violent images