Real life has a way of intruding into art - and commerce - in ways that can't be foreseen. Take The Watch (please!), a numskull comedy starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade as overzealous town-watch volunteers trying to solve a string of gory murders. In February, the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin shooting prompted Twentieth Century Fox to trim the title of its summer release, originally called Neighborhood Watch.
Then, last week's midnight nightmare in an Aurora, Colo., multiplex. What's that have to do with a crude farce about yo-yos with flashlights and walkie-talkies, you ask?
Well, I'm sure I wasn't the only one at The Watch's preview screening who didn't respond as director Akiva Schaffer intended when Hill's character, Franklin, a police department reject who lives at home with his mom, pulls his mattress off his bed to reveal a cache of handguns, rifles, and automatic weapons. What's wrong with this picture?
Reality aside, The Watch is harmless enough - and even occasionally humorous, in a riffy, sketch-comedy kind of way. Stiller, the narrative linchpin of this uneven undertaking, is Evan Troutwig, a fussy small-town Ohioan who leads a running club, involves himself in civic affairs, and manages the local Costco. He and his wife, Abby (Rosemary DeWitt), seem happy enough, except for the pregnancy tests that keep coming up zilch.
When Costco's graveyard-shift security guard, a Mexican who has just gained U.S. citizenship, is found by police the next morning with a big chunk of his torso missing, Evan organizes a town watch. The response to his recruitment campaign is huge: Bob (Vaughn), a party-hardy family guy, and Franklin, the aforementioned doofus with the arsenal in his bedroom. As their inaugural meeting gets under way, a fourth guy shows up at the door: Jamaracus, a bespectacled Brit with an amicable manner and a shaggy Afro. Ayoade, the writer and director of last year's charming U.K. indie Submarine, brings a stranger-in-a-strange-land naiveté to the proceedings. He's The Watch's biggest surprise - not that there are many.
In fact, the twist that Glenview's serial killer is actually a group of Alien-like ooze monsters will not come as a shock to anyone who has seen the trailer and TV spots. But Stiller's Evan foreshadows the movie's evil extraterrestrials plot line in his opening-credit voice-over, mulling the meaning of what lies out there in the beyond, and "beyond the beyond."
An uncredited Billy Crudup appears grinningly as a friendly neighbor who may be 1) the murderer, 2) a sex fiend, or 3) gay. Evan's not sure, but the guy gives him the willies in any case. DeWitt, recently seen (to far better effect) in Your Sister's Sister, puts on her game face, having a few serious spousal sit-downs and then grabbing a gun to join her hubby and his crew in their quest to save Glenview - and the rest of Planet Earth.
Last question: After all of The Watch's alien ejaculate jokes, its orgy scene, a near teenage date rape, and a running gag about the sex acts of Asian housewives, will the executive at Costco who signed off on this wall-to-wall piece of product placement still have his or her job? The bargain warehouse chain may be another victim of The Watch's unfortunate timing.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.