Funny foursome flounders in The Watch, a French connection in The Intouchables

by Mark Burger

Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade are the principal members of The Watch , and they’re also the principal reason for watching this intermittently amusing science-fiction/suburbia satire that opens strong but fairly wheezes across the finish line.

The film, originally titled Neighborhood Watch before the studio changed it in light of the Zimmerman/Martin incident in Florida, has a funny premise and funny people on hand. Following a mysterious murder in the Costco that he manages, Evan (Stiller) is frustrated by the lack of ingenuity by the local police to solve the crime. (It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, given that  Will Forte plays the cop on the case.)

Evan decides to form a neighborhood watch, and the only neighbors interested in participating are, of course, Vaughn, Hill and Ayoade. Their initial attempts at detective work are, not surprisingly, embarrassing, but it’s not too long before they stumble across evidence of aliens. Not the illegal kind, but the extraterrestrial kind — the kind bent on conquering Earth.

Not unlike the earlier Stiller/Vaughn team-up Dodgeball (2004), which was a surprise box-office smash, The Watch tends to use up its best gags and biggest laughs in the first half. The films share a common trajectory that tends to dip in the latter stages.

Directed by “Saturday Night Live” veteran Akiva Schaffer, the tone is very light and very loose, with requisite lapses into vulgarity. As it slides toward an effects-happy conclusion — the special effects are quite good, it should be noted — The Watch coasts on its cast, which boasts some solid hitters.

Most of the actors have played variations of their roles here before, and are experienced in wringing every last laugh (and sometimes more) out of flimsy material, as well as winging it entirely. Stiller plays an all-American suburban control freak, Vaughn an all-American beer-guzzling macho man past his prime and Hill an all-American arrested adolescent.

If Ayoade stands out, it’s because he’s British and not as familiar to audiences here as the others. Rosemary DeWitt plays the thankless role of Stiller’s wife but looks great in lingerie and gets to participate in the finale, while an uncredited Billy Crudup is most amusing as his new neighbor.

The cast works it — enough to make The Watch a painless way to kill 100 minutes, especially in a nice air-conditioned theater. And, hey, it’s not in 3-D!

The Intouchables , is one of those feel-good, crowd-pleasing movies that pushes every button and hits every note in telling an uplifting story of an unexpected friendship.

It’s also far too smooth for its own good, despite being based on a true story. That, however, may not matter to audiences in the mood for a calculated, manipulative entertainment such as this. Tearjerkers, no matter the country of origin — The Intouchables is French — have their place and their audience, and this film is clearly being positioned, and promoted, as a breakout hit on the arthouse circuit. Yet the structure of the story, written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, smacks of old-hat, high-concept Hollywood.

An appealing cast is headed by Francois Cluzet as Philippe and Omar Sy as Dris. Philippe is wealthy, white and widowed. Dris is poor, black and streetwise. Philippe is quadriplegic and needs a nurse. Dris recently did a stint in jail and needs a job. They say that opposites attract, and so they do again here.

The dramatic set-up is a little too easy, with whatever cultural and personal hurdles between the two disparate men surmounted with little fuss. From Philippe, Dris learns selflessness, compassion and an appreciation for the finer things. From Dris, Phillipe learns how to have fun despite his condition and an appreciation for the simpler things.

By and large, The Intouchables plays out as expected. It’s wellmade and well-acted, yet it leans heavily toward the obvious — too heavily and too obviously, as it turns out.

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