In 2012, Ben Stiller and a cast of comedy all-stars were poised to rake in an easy $50 million with Neighborhood Watch, a comedy about four average, suburban men who find themselves staring down the barrel of a covert alien invasion in their small Ohio town. Set for a wide open July 27 release, the science-fiction flick seemed like a safe bet for all involved.

Then, the film’s course was derailed by twin tragedies that far out-shadowed it. In March, mere days after the movie began its marketing campaign with a teaser trailer featuring a bullet-riddled Neighborhood Watch sign, the world was confronted with the terrible murder of Trayvon Martin. The shooting (rightly) inspired a name change for the film a mere two months before its release.

Later in the year, just a week before the film’s release, James Holmes opened fire in a Colorado theater, putting some of the film’s darker jokes in a pretty unappetizing light.

And while the fate of a silly comedy juxtaposed against such awfulness is obviously unimportant (let’s just go ahead and get that out of the way, right now), the one-two punch of these catastrophes conspired to take down The Watch before it even had a chance to get screened.

Consider the Context of the Reviews

Okay, one more quick note on tragedy and then we can stop talking about all this dire shit in favor of some escapism.

If you check out The Watch on Rotten Tomatoes you will be almost assuredly dissuaded from seeing the film. The reviews — and the cumulative 17 percent score — are fucking abysmal. However, the core of the reviews were written in the wake of the film’s coincidental connections to tragedy. In fact, several reviews make mention of both Martin’s murder and Holmes’s spree.

The Watch is an unrepentantly crass film that was released during one of America’s brief breaks from its long-term love affair with the stupid, gross-out comedy. Still, coming to grips with the events that sparked a (sadly brief) national discussion of gun violence, a film that reveled in that violence seems a little tasteless.

So, in short: In any other year, The Watch would have likely received the solid ‘B’ grades it deserved, instead of receiving the ire of film critics across the nation.

The Cast Is Committed

Okay, moving beyond conversations above my pay grade, let’s actually talk about what makes The Watch great. First and foremost, the movie is anchored by four men who showed up to work. As a New Yorker’s impression of a Mid-Westerner, Ben Stiller gets an opportunity to try out his mild-mannered comedian routine. It’s a rare chance to glimpse the actor’s gift for playing it straight.

In between Oscar noms, Jonah Hill is totally dialed in as the moronic gun fan who lives with his mother. The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade brings his peculiar, but perfect delivery to every line. Vince Vaughn, meanwhile, is just playing Vince Vaughn in the suburbs — but he attacks the role with an enthusiasm that’s magically contagious.

The rest of the cast is rounded out with an assortment of talents and comedy staples. Will Forte plays a clueless police officer, with Mel Rodriguez tagging along as his mute sidekick, Chucho. Rosemarie DeWitt jumps on board as Stiller’s wife, and R. Lee Ermey drops in from time to time as an irate local.

It’s Not a Comedy, It’s a Story

I guess this might be the fault of the film’s marketing (not that they didn’t have enough working against them from the very beginning), but The Watch isn’t just a comedy. The film takes breaks from trying to make you laugh to actually flesh out the characters with brief moments of real insecurity. The Watch also does its best to work in some decent action scenes along the way.

The result is a lot more complex than just a movie about four dumbasses making dick jokes. There are a lot of dick jokes, but The Watch doesnt spend the entirety of its two-hour run trying to make you laugh every second; it’s also focused on moving the story forward in a somewhat organic way. In its ability to weave the film’s myriad subplots in and out of the main story naturally, The Watch deserves some credit — or maybe some leeway — when it comes to the humor.

Oh No, a Dick Joke!

Male genitals are everywhere in The Watch. Everywhere. Dicks are the subject of several jokes. Balls are the motivation for one character’s change of heart. Infertility is the root of Ben Stiller’s vulnerability. And penises are the alien species’ only weakness. To its credit, the film’s script — in part, from Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen — does a lot of work to earn the plot-related penis points, which makes them a little more palatable.

As for the dicks in the jokes, it’s easy to think of it like this: Dick-joke territory may be well trodden, but that doesn’t mean it’s a completely tapped resource. The concept of the dick joke may draw a lot of eye rolls these days, but that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a crass, yet still well-crafted dick joke.

Whether or not one of those comedic unicorns rears its head in The Watch is up to the viewer (but it’s got more than a couple).

Weird Ambivalence

The Watch should have been much simpler than it was. It’s a fast-moving broad comedy. It’s a strong blend of some familiar plots that more than earns its runtime. The cast is up to the challenge of improvisation and the action scenes are enjoyable for their over-the-top silly gore.

Though the film was initially ridiculed and then forgotten amid national tragedies, that’s just too bad: This is one action comedy that’s well worth a few hours of your time.

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