What is it about Ghostbusters that’s proven so difficult to recreate? The 1984 hit concocted a formula that mixed comedy and special effects, created a real sense of danger, and escalated the story at a pace set by its cast’s one-liners. That formula has been easy to imitate, but impossible to replicate. Director Ivan Reitman tried to repeat the trick twice, with Ghostbusters 2 and Evolution, only to fall flat both times, and among other imitators, only Men In Black has struck a similarly effective balance. The Watch is the latest attempt to pit an all-star cast of comedic actors against some threatening, state-of-the-art creatures—this time, aliens rather than ghosts—and it’s a weirdly pokey exercise that rarely gets the best out of those involved. In spite of some prominently featured green slime and power-beam weaponry, it won’t make anyone forget Ghostbusters anytime soon.
Still, the talent involved suggests it might have had a shot at being memorable on its own terms, with a few adjustments and a little more daring. Instead, director Akiva Schaffer (Hot Rod), working from a script credited to Jared Stern, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg, drops everyone into familiar roles and hopes what worked before will work again. So viewers get Ben Stiller as an uptight everyman, a model citizen in a small Ohio town who takes it upon himself to organize a neighborhood watch group after his co-worker at Costco dies under mysterious circumstances. (It’s worth noting that the discount chain and many of the fine products available for purchase there—all of them lovingly photographed in ways that maximize brand recognition—play such heavy supporting roles in the film that The Watch creates the illusion of an extended pre-film commercial that’s refused to give way to the proper film.) He’s soon joined by Vince Vaughn as another in a line of tethered pit bulls, and Jonah Hill as an intense, would-be policeman who seems like a near-relation to the crazed mall cop Rogen played in Observe And Report.
That’s a fine cast of funny people, familiar roles and all, but The Watch places a bit too much confidence in the idea that simply putting funny people together will be enough. The cast riffs aimlessly off one another as the film plods along to the next encounter with aliens that look like unimaginatively exact crosses between the creatures from Alien and Predator. The brightest spots—and they are bright—come courtesy of the fourth member of their group, Richard Ayoade, a performer and filmmaker best known to fans of the British sitcom The IT Crowd. Unfailingly, and often inappropriately, he lends an unpredictable element to the group dynamic, and to the film. It’s the sort of performance that ought to be plucked for use in another, better movie.