Vince Vaughn had something of a hot streak in the early 2000s, and it was one of those rare moments where a star’s schtick is perfectly utilized in several roles in just the right order. Flicks like “Old School,” “Dodgeball” and “Wedding Crashers” represent a golden age for the comedian, and his personality hasn’t been used so well in a film in a long time. However, “The Watch” practically nails it, bouncing Vaughn’s puppy-dog enthusiasm off of Jonah Hill, “Dodgeball” castmate Ben Stiller and Richard Ayoade to wonderful effect.
That central quartet makes up the film’s titular organization, founded by Stiller’s Evan after a murder takes place in the Costco he manages. Bob (Vaughn) mostly just wants a chance to revel in some male bonding, while Franklin (Hill) and Jamarcus (Ayoade) are just trying to find a way to fit in or keep themselves entertained. However, their small-time crime fighting is quickly derailed by a brewing alien invasion.
Clearly, the main appeal to “The Watch” is putting Stiller, Hill and Vaughn in a car together and letting them riff. Stiller is mostly asked to stick to playing the straight man, and he’s tightly wound here. Evan has a legitimate affection for the community he’s built a life in, and Stiller makes forming the neighborhood watch feel intensely personal to the character. Vaughn is very effective as well, and his full-speed-ahead exhilaration for whatever he happens to be doing at the moment is infectious.
Hill isn’t used as the hapless smartass he usually portrays, and he gets to play a much harder edge than normal as Franklin, a delusional and unapologetically sleazy dropout with aspirations of joining the police force. He gets some big laughs here, especially in a few brief back-and-forths with Vaughn, but the film’s MVP is easily Ayoade. His Jamarcus is almost a walking contradiction, timid but assertive, and Ayoade brings an unexpected strut to the film’s dynamics. He also gets the most interesting material to play, and he absolutely sells his character’s inner conflict.
“The Watch” is designed with corporate synergy in mind, and the film’s Costco setting allows for some fairly blatant product placement. However, the film isn’t content to simply be a long Tide commercial, and gives its central characters some genuine nuance and shading. The film’s attempts to get to the bottom of masculine insecurity and camaraderie are unexpected, and even if they’re not particularly original, it’s refreshing that the film is even trying. “The Watch” never overdoes it on the emotional beats, and deploys them well.
It’s been a summer that’s noticeably light on strong comedies, and the last truly funny wide release to hit multiplexes was probably “21 Jump Street.” “The Watch” is certainly no comedy classic, but it’s completely painless to watch, a frequently hilarious exploration of male bonding in the face of the apocalypse. There are certainly better films in theaters this weekend, but “The Watch” is so innocuous, entertaining and downright funny that it’s a worthwhile way to spend a few hours.