July 27, 2012 in Features

‘The Watch’s’ parts are bigger than the whole

Roger Moore McClatchy

From left, Jonah Hill, Ben Stiller, Richard Ayoade and Vince Vaughn in a scene from “The Watch.”
(Full-size photo)

What’s in a name?

 “Neighborhood Watch” seemed like a fine title for a Jonah Hill comedy about suburbanites battling space aliens – that is, until Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by a volunteer watchman in February. Suddenly, that title wasn’t so funny. The movie, which arrives in theaters today, is now called simply “The Watch.”

 It’s not the only movie to undergo a name change. The Chris Pine drama “People Like Us,” released last month, was titled “Welcome to People” as recently as March. Even some of the most famous movie titles weren’t set in stone: “Hunter” eventually became the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic “Predator,” and “A Boy’s Life” was the working title for Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.”

 Here are six other titles you might not recognize, though you almost certainly saw the movies they became:

 “Three Thousand”: The number of warriors in a fantasy epic? A future date in a sci-fi film? It’s actually the price, in dollars, of a night with Vivian Ward, the character portrayed by Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.”

 “The Last First Kiss”: Too mushy for male audiences, according to focus-group testing. So, this 2005 Will Smith comedy became “Hitch.”

 “Comfort Food”: Sounds like something the late Nora Ephron might have directed, right? That’s what Universal Pictures initially called this raunchy 1999 teen comedy, but the film’s eventual title came from its most famous scene: “American Pie.”

 “The William Munny Killings”: Well, it’s a more palatable title than “The Cut-Whore Killings,” but both seem better suited to a horror flick than a Western. Eventually, the movie’s director and star, Clint Eastwood, chose “Unforgiven.”

 “Mechanismo”: This odd title makes some sense if you know the plot. But let’s be glad the filmmakers ultimately came up with “Blade Runner,” Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic about humanoid robots that starred Harrison Ford, shown.

 “Tomorrow Never Lies”: After this script was faxed to MGM, it’s unclear who made the slip-up. But the next day a studio rep called director Roger Spottiswoode to say, “We love your title ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’! That’s going to be it!” And so the 18th James Bond movie found its name.

– Rafer Guzman, Newsday

It’s good to see Vince Vaughn back riding that Red Bull. He’s lost the “fat and self-satisfied” look of recent films. The caffeine is back, and so is the breathless manic patter.

In “The Watch,” the neighborhood-watch-discovers-an- alien-invasion comedy, he’s second banana to Ben Stiller, trying like heck to keep from being third-billed to Jonah Hill. So he’s back to his old self, riffing like a fiend, improvising nicknames for the other characters – “Franklin” (Hill) becomes “Frank-n-Beans,” “Frank-n-Furter,” and Evan (Stiller) is “Evan-rude,” “Evander,” “Ever-ready.”

Vaughn’s brought his A-game to a sometimes ponderous, sometimes explosively funny comedy that benefits from a “Top THIS” one-liner ethos from the cast. Stiller does a variation of his overly-earnest straight-man shtick – Evan is a Glenview, Ohio, Costco manager who obsessively exercises, obsessively collects “friends” of every race and creed, who obsessively organizes “clubs.” Bob (Vaughn) joins Evan’s Neighborhood Watch to get out of the house, away from the wife and kid, to drink Budweiser and lead Bachman-Turner Overdrive sing-alongs.

Hill’s Franklin has an oily Lee Harvey Oswald haircut, a thing for military surplus clothes and switchblades and is totally down with “this vigilante squad, militia, whatever you’re calling it.”

And Jamarcas (Richard Ayoade of British TV’s “The IT Crowd”) is the frizzy-haired foreigner who just wants to assimilate. A bit.

The screenwriters (Seth Rogen among them) took inspiration from the paranoid “Twilight Zone” episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and the screen comedy “The Burbs” in trying to cook up some reason to get these guys together, talking dirty, swilling beer and increasingly paranoid at the bizarre murders that are popping up in their quiet suburb. Something with green goo and tentacles is skinning people. And it may be disguising itself as one of them – a neighbor, the boy going a little too far with Bob’s teenage daughter, the doofus cop (Will Forte).

The plot is secondary here, an excuse to put the foursome in a soccer-mom-mobile, drinking, topping each other’s jokes about urinating in a beer can and “sharing” – their disappointments at not joining the police force, at not being attractive to women, at Facebook stalking Bob’s sexually curious teenage daughter. Vaughn’s been playing dads lately, and he makes those shouted scenes with daughter Chelsea (Erin Moriarty) sing.

“You’re gonna let some guy car-wash the inside of your mouth with his tongue? On FACEBOOK?”

The bits are funnier than the movie that Rogen, co-writer Evan Goldberg (“Pineapple Express”) and director and “Saturday Night Live” vet Akiva Schaffer (“Hot Rod”) cook up around them. R. Lee Ermey shows up to cuss, call the watchers girly names and wave a shotgun around. Billy Crudup practically oozes as a new neighbor a little too appreciative of Evan’s physical fitness.

There’s an orgy, so look for “SNL” cameos in that.

And Rosemarie DeWitt, who broke out with “Mad Men,” does the sexually voracious thing as Evan’s hot-to-get-preggers wife.

The graphic violence – played for gooey laughs – and the flat-footed way the movie stops any time a special effect is needed (there are aliens, after all) cripple “The Watch.”

The post-Trayvon Martin subject matter doesn’t have quite the bad timing of “Step Up Revolution,” which has dance scenes with smoke bombs and gas masks that take us to Aurora, Colo.

But if we can’t laugh at beer-swilling trigger-happy Neighborhood Watchers, what’s the point of moving to the ’burbs?

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