What makes you laugh? What makes a comedy actually funny? How do you quantify humour? These are hard questions – and ones that I’m stuck on, because I didn’t think ‘The Watch’, ostensibly a harmless, if provocative, comedy film, was very funny. It wasn’t humourless (I mean, everybody knows the money is in dick and fart jokes), but it felt played out. And even though it didn’t do it for me, there were still pockets at this screening that were falling over with laughter—so what does that say?

The Watch assembles a great line-up of fan-favourite comedians – Ben Stiller (‘Greenberg’), Vince Vaughn (‘Couples Retreat’), Jonah Hill ‘21 Jump Street’) and Richard Ayoade (‘The IT Crowd’). Stiller, as gormless everyman Evan, is a Costco manager who assembles a team of neighbourhood watch volunteers after the death of a local Costco employee. Hijinks ensue.

If you think the obvious gag here might be something along the lines of “guys fingering balls”, you’d be right. And that’s The Watch for you.

I know product placement and corporate sponsorship is practically essential for funding major Hollywood releases these days. Fine, I guess. I’ll look the other way when I see a blatant Audi billboard or the hero activates his Armani timepiece on his wrist. But that’s a far cry from the wet, gushy, orgiastic Costco love-in that is The Watch. This whole film hinges around Costco – the store employs Ben Stiller’s main character, repeated trips are made there, the audience endures Vince Vaughn selling us on its benefits and the whole climax of the film takes place in the well-stocked aisles of this American consumerist hellhole. Grease those palms, Costco. I hope it was worth it, because it sure as hell was distracting and transparent.

The cast, all seasoned comedians in their own right, don’t quite meld into the unified troupe it needs to be. The script has them bonding together, forming camaraderie and alliances, but it’s not quite believable; it’s as if they were all (*gasp*) essentially phoning it in because – and follow my lead here – the script doesn’t give them a whole lot to play with.

It also doesn’t help that the first half of The Watch is arguably the stronger half. It’s no spoiler to say that an alien invasion is what triggers the downward spiral of events. While comparisons have and will be made to the excellent UK black comedy, ‘Attack The Block’, there’s a wide chasm of wit and quality between it and The Watch—and Stiller, Vaughn and company all end up plummeting into it, our laughs trailing off with them as the film dissolves into uninspired action sequences and dud jokes.

Occasionally, there are some genuinely funny Rogen/Goldbergian moments of comedy writing. This one’s a rare treat.

It’s as if the first half of the film is an entirely different set-up and, at some point, a 15-year-old guy with a hang-up on penises and lowest-brow humour walked into the production meeting and rewrote the final act.

This is surprising since we know that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (the talented minds behind tighter comedies ‘Superbad’, ‘Pineapple Express’ and ‘Knocked Up’) were responsible for this script. All of this leads back to just how critical the Judd Apatow influence truly is—and how lost in the mire director Akiva Schaffer (‘Hot Rod’) was. A lot of comedians can write comedy, but it takes a great director to tie it together and know the difference between “funny” and “provocative.”

All of this builds a pretty catastrophic picture of The Watch – and I think, given how many other awesome, funny, gross and clever comedies are out there (particularly from this cast and crew under other circumstances), I refuse to be an apologist. It’s not an unmitigated disaster, but it’s not good – or good enough. If you’re drunk, stoned or just in need of mindless pulp comedy, add another half a star. For everyone else, it’s hard to recommend you watch The Watch.

1.5 Stars

Patrick Kolan

@PatchKolan

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