Outer-space plot drags down ‘The Watch’

Until the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a movie about an inept group of Neighborhood Watch yahoos patrolling their suburban streets sounded like a funny concept. After the shooting, the producers changed the title of the film from “Neighborhood Watch” to “The Watch,” stuck to their release date and hoped for the best.

There isn’t much overlap between real life and movie life in “The Watch,” especially when the illegals targeted by the Neighborhood Watch members turn out to be aliens — as in aliens from another galaxy.

The setting is a sleepy Ohio town, where normal guy Evan (Ben Stiller) has worked his way up the ranks of the local Costco to become a manager. He’s outraged by the inexplicable death of a night watchman at the store and vows to organize a Neighborhood Watch in order to find the killer.

The turnout for the first meeting is feeble. Bob (Vince Vaughn) is a blabbermouth who just wants a regular guys’ night out; Franklin (Jonah Hill) is a vaguely creepy high-school dropout who’s still upset that the police force turned down his job application; and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade) is a frizz-haired Englishman.

That the source of the Costco murder turns out to be extraterrestrial in nature allows “The Watch” to keep its goofy tone, without pausing much to worry about the nature of vigilantes on the loose. This is broad slapstick, with designated spaces for the actors to improvise.

Vaughn and Hill are manic ad-libbers, and moments in the movie rely entirely on their abilities to seize the moment. When they start riffing on the new design for their Watch jackets (a flaming tiger with wings) or Bob is suggesting Franklin dress up as a woman, the movie hits its stride. (Still, Vaughn needs to start varying his shtick; he’s getting louder with each movie, and the effect wears you down instead of pumping you up.)

British comedian Ayoade has a few good deadpan moments, while Stiller is lodged in another of his frustrated-guy roles, as a born organizer who can’t organize his marriage.

Rosemarie DeWitt, currently on view in “Your Sister’s Sister,” is overqualified to play Stiller’s wife, but at least the moviemakers allow her to join in the action of the final sequences, instead of being relegated to the sidelines, which so often happens in these boy-centric pictures.

Will Forte does well as a suspicious cop, and Billy Crudup is exactly as yucky as he needs to be, playing Evan’s suspiciously friendly neighbor.

I got some laughs out of this movie, and there are places where director Akiva Schaffer (he did the daffy “Hot Rod” and some inspired “Saturday Night Live” work) finds a satirical groove. The opening sequence is promising, and Schaffer has a good ear for the way stupidity escalates when it’s multiplied by four.

The funny stuff tends to get overwhelmed by the needs of a special-effects picture, as though everybody thought they were making a junior-sized version of “Ghostbusters.” If they’d dropped the outer-space angle, this movie might’ve had more laughs, and more edge.

“The Watch” (2½ stars)

Lots of improv humor in this special-effects comedy about four idiots who form a Neighborhood Watch patrol and find extra-terrestrials on the loose. Sporadic laughs come from the collision of Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill, although given the talent here the movie should’ve been funnier.

Rated: R for language, violence, nudity.

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Meridian, Sundance, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade, Oak Harbor.

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