IN THE RAUNCHY sci-fi comedy "The Watch," four suburban guys form a town watch that ends up being the last line of defense against an alien invasion.
The watchmen (Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, British actor Richard Ayoade) come in a standard "Ghostbusters" configuration — four dudes in goofy outfits, three white, one black — but watching "The Watch" earn its R rating, you realize how much comedy has changed since the 1980s.
Contemporary Hollywood seems uninterested in delivering a mass-market comedy that doesn't come with 50 wiener jokes — at least half of the gags in "The Watch" involve the region below the belt and above the knee. Stiller has low sperm count, Vaughn freaks out when he sees his daughter's boyfriend buying large-sized condoms, Ayoade hopes his town-watch job will lead to easy sex, and so does Hill (the script is by Seth Rogen). I enumerate these not to jump on the R-rated wagon, but to give parents an idea of what goes on in "The Watch," painted in the TV commercials as a standard summer sci-fi romp.
What, you may ask, do all these off-color jokes have to do with an alien invasion? Nothing, really; they're just there, like wallpaper, and after awhile, you might find yourself wishing Rogen had chosen a different pattern, maybe jacked up the thriller quotient, taking the movie in the direction of, say, "Attack the Block."
The script does little to challenge its cast of comedians (Stiller the exasperated everyman, Vaughn the blabbermouth, Hill this misfit), and Ayoade (who has a large Internet audience here for his U.K. show "The IT Crowd") is left with his gift for offbeat wit largely untapped.
Still, it's not as if the movie is bereft of laughs. When it does get around to flexing its action-comedy muscles, it picks up speed, and everybody here knows what to do with a joke, dirty or otherwise. I'll watch Vaughn in anything. It's just that in the case of "The Watch," I'm pretty sure I did.
P.S. The studio had been worried that the Trayvon Martin killing might make the movie's town-watch theme untimely and uncomfortable, and indeed Hill plays a cop wannabe who failed the police entrance exam and wants to deploy his private weapons collection in service of pseudo law enforcement (and does, in fact, participate in the takedown of a hoodie-wearing teen).
But the similarities are tenuous, and the movie's relation to any known reality is safely distant.
Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "Keep It Reel," at philly.com/keepitreel.
Review | ss1/2
Directed by Akiva Schaffer. With Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Rosemary DeWitt, Will Forte. Distributed by 20th Century fox.
Running time: 100 minutes
Parent's guide: R (language, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters