Four buddies fend off an invasion of slimy, other-worldly creatures!
Yes, it’s been quite a while since Ghostbusters (1984) invented that recipe, so it’s about time that someone finally upda—
Wait… seriously? 1984? Twenty-eight years ago? Holy crap, I’m old.
Well, in any case, for those with fond memories of that great-granddaddy of big-budget, sci-fi comedies, and for all you teens and twenty-something youngsters out there who probably don’t even know what I’m talking about, we now have The Watch as an update on the formula, albeit with aliens instead of ghosts. That’s right, it’s our own little Monsters vs. Aliens Smackdown, and all we’re missing is Reese Witherspoon. (Seriously, I miss Reese Witherspoon. What the hell happened to her?)
Anyway… let’s get ready to sli-i-ime-ble…
Innocent residents of the seemingly peaceful Glenview, Ohio, are being quite messily killed, and it’s up to the town’s most annoyingly civic-minded citizen, Costco manager Evan Trautwig (Ben Stiller) to start a neighborhood watch to find the killer and keep the town safe from further attacks. Sadly, he manages to only scrape up a mere three recruits: fun-loving, family man Bob (Vince Vaughn); tough-guy, cop-wannabe Franklin (Jonah Hill); and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), a sweet-natured divorcee who joins up with a very specific fantasy in mind that you’ve probably seen in the trailer.
Sure enough, it’s not long before the quartet discovers the culprits to be vicious aliens who bleed green goo and look like what would have resulted if Alien and Predator had reproduced instead of battled. The bumbling Watchers keep getting distracted by their own domestic issues, but they eventually learn to cooperate and join forces to prevent the impending invasion, raunchily bickering all along the way.
The Defending Champion
Ghosts of all sorts are becoming an increasing nuisance in Manhattan, but fortunately, the recently formed Ghostbusters gang is on the case! The core trio: egghead Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis); quirky, motor-mouth Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd); and laconic Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), who gets all the best wisecracks as well as a slowly blossoming romance with Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), the comely violinist whose apartment building seems to be headquarters for all the evil spirits.
When a nosy EPA agent (William Atherton) releases all the ghosts out of spite, all hell breaks loose, and it’s up to the Ghostbusters — now also including Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson), a late addition for no apparent reason beyond ethnic diversity — to face down the evil ringleader and save the city.
So how does Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters, once the most successful comedy of all time (until Home Alone took the crown in 1990) play now, with its spoilers long spoiled, its special effects long surpassed, and its easy-going, good-natured wit almost quaint, next to the slick and relentlessly kinetic Men in Black-ish blockbusters of today? I’d like to think it plays to the uninitiated in the same way the best Marx Brothers movies do (youngsters, ask someone old), with the comedy being timeless enough to win over even the most jaded modern viewer. Speaking for myself as a youngish old-timer who still vividly remembers the novelty of sticking some wiseass SNL veterans into a special-effects extravaganza and how endlessly quotable the film instantly became… I spent most of The Watch mentally grumbling the lament of oldish old-timers everywhere: They don’t make ’em like they used to.
It’s not that it’s flat-out bad, mind you, and it’s not that I’m incapable of enjoying a juvenile action-comedy (Hill’s 21 Jump Street remains, shockingly, one of the best times I’ve had at the movies all year); it’s mostly that this one is just so damn lazy. Stiller does his usual whiny, uptight noodge and leaves it at that, and Vaughn’s ultra-candid, loudmouth, good-time Charlie routine is equally tired. Give Hill props for at least trying a new character, convincingly playing a tough-guy, or at least a guy who’s convinced himself he’s a tough-guy. And then there’s the far less familiar Ayoade, probably known best for his role in the British sitcom The IT Crowd and writing/directing the indie coming-of-age charmer Submarine, who has a refreshingly offbeat look and persona but (much like his Ghostbusters equivalent, Hudson) is given precious little to do.
Ghostbusters‘ dual agenda of going for both laughter and awe was charming and all but unprecedented in its day. The Watch has no such interest in spectacle. Its aliens are boring and derivative, and its shoot-out climax plays out in what appears to be the exact same warehouse as Pineapple Express, a previous and similarly clumsy genre hybrid from screenwriters Seth Rogen (whose always-welcome presence in this kind of thing is sorely missing this time) and Evan Goldberg. Alongside Ghostbusters, which utilized the entirety of Manhattan as its set (and in pre-CG days, no less), the set pieces in The Watch feel positively half-baked. Ghostbusters steadily built in tension toward a climax that had the fate of the world at stake, and even its wiseass characters actually took that seriously. The Watch not only can’t be bothered with having its alien plot make sense, it forgets about it entirely for whole stretches while Stiller deals with keeping his sterility secret from his eagerly fertile wife (the irresistible Rosemarie DeWitt) and Vaughn argues with his rebellious teen daughter (Erin Moriarty).
But the main difference is one of tone. The PG-rated humor and spirit of Ghostbusters (written by Aykroyd and Ramis) was smart-alecky but genial. It had Murray at the top of his game, effortlessly dishing out quips that were as perfectly designed and memorable as any special effect. To compare with the R-rated The Watch, one need look no further than Murray’s grumbling reaction to having to collect ectoplasm samples — “Somebody blows their nose and you want to keep it…” –- with Vaughn’s observation of the green alien blood: “It feels like cum.” Yeah, that’s The Watch all over, never missing an opportunity to make a bodily fluid joke, or a sex joke, or a dick joke, or a gay joke (particularly regarding an effeminate neighbor played amusingly by Billy Crudup), sometimes all of the above in the course of one exchange.
Ghostbusters was like hanging out with the world’s best class clown and his pals; The Watch is like hanging out with the world’s oldest frat-boys.
In its defense, I’ll concede that it’s a fast-paced, agreeably idiotic way to kill a couple of hours, particularly if you enjoy these actors and aren’t yet tired of their familiar schtick. Or if you just really, really like dick jokes. It’s what I’d call, at best, Netflix-worthy, and seems perfectly content with that; those expecting anything more… well, you’ve been warned.
Ghostbusters is the one that started it all, the one that launched a thousand summer blockbuster comedy/special effects extravaganzas, for better or worse. Some of its luster may have faded over the last three decades (!), but to these aging eyes, it’s certainly witty, imaginative and oddly charming enough to fend off the raunchy, derivative and downright lazy likes of The Watch.
Sorry, Watch-men… you’ve been slimed.