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The Watch Is a Meditation on American Masculinity — Also, Dick Jokes

The Watch probably has more dick jokes per reel (or byte) than any other film in recent memory, but rest assured, it’s all for a reason, sort of. Akiva Schaffer’s refreshingly R-rated, albeit wildly uneven alien invasion comedy posits that safeguarding the homeland against an extraterrestrial attack is one of the few remaining traditional roles left for today’s American man, and it sets out to prove it — by repeatedly degrading and humiliating its small-town nice-guy heroes in all sorts of ways, though mostly sexually, before letting them save the day.

Of course, the comedy of humiliation has long been Ben Stiller’s forte, but here his shortcomings are subtler, and deeper. His Evan Troutwig does everything right, except the one thing he truly wants: He’s a fair-minded manager at Costco, a longstanding member of the community center’s Spanish table, proud founder of the local running club, and completely unable to impregnate his very game wife (Rosemarie DeWitt). When one of his employees is mysteriously ripped apart, can-do Evan founds a neighborhood watch and hooks up with Bob (Vince Vaughn), a middle-aged father looking for a boys’ night out; Franklin (Jonah Hill), a shy wannabe-vigilante in a Travis Bickle jacket; and Jamarcus (British funnyman and filmmaker Richard Ayoade), an exceedingly polite Brit with some fanciful notions of what happens on civilian patrol. (That Jamarcus is at least part black delights Evan, who eagerly informed us earlier that he doesn’t have any black friends yet, but is “on the market.”)

Our heroes all hope the neighborhood watch will be a vehicle by which they can reassert their manhood. Bob wants an excuse to hang out in his seemingly unused man-cave while also keeping tabs on his teenage daughter, who appears to be dating some guy with a huge schlong. Soft-spoken, “feminine-featured” Franklin hopes it can make up for his rejection from the police force and give him a chance to use that massive arsenal under his bed (an easy gag that’s less funny in the immediate, post-Aurora world). And Jamarcus has a dream about getting blown by a lonely Asian housewife — a fantasy that, once realized, turns out to have more significant narrative consequences than you might expect. As for Evan, it’s yet another distraction from the homestead, where he’s afraid to confess to his wife that he’s sterile. (“She married you, not your dead jizz,” Bob says to comfort him, to little avail.)

We know, eventually, that our heroes will rise (ahem) to the challenge. But of course, at first, things don’t go as planned. The watch guys are humiliated by a local inept cop (Will Forte), then by some egg-throwing, pun-friendly teenagers, then by a gun-toting R. Lee Ermey, who tells them to “get back in your soccer mom van and get the fuck out.” Right around that point, however, they discover the aliens’ green, slimy blood, which they all agree has the consistency of cum. Get the picture yet? Really, scratch the surface of The Watch and you’ll find a lot of anxiety about the neutering of the modern American male. Actually, scratch that part about scratching. It’s all on the surface: Once the aliens show up in earnest, we discover that the only way to truly kill them is to shoot them in the nether regions. At last, our heroes get to neuter somebody else for a change.

But how’s the movie? Schaffer, best known for Saturday Night Live’s occasionally very funny digital shorts, doesn’t seem to have much talent for pacing or a style to call his own, but he keeps things dutifully parodic: He shoots the initial scenes with the aliens in schlocky, late-night horror-movie fashion — a pastiche of a pastiche. Later on, he has the presence of mind to deliver some pretty funny sight gags in which aliens fly at us in Michael Bay–ian slo-mo before getting their groins blown to bits, so we can cheer lustily at the bad guys’ genital comeuppance.

If I’m making it sound like The Watch has a lot of cheap, easy laughs — that’s because it does. Condom jokes, jizz jokes, size jokes, shooting-aliens-in-the-dick jokes … really, it’s all low-hanging fruit, so to speak. But you can’t really blame director Schaffer and writers Seth Rogen, Jared Stern, and Evan Goldberg for picking them. Yes, it all gets kind of old, and yes, it’s all over the place, but you’ll probably find yourself laughing at least some of the time. Dick jokes, after all, can be pretty funny.

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox