A scene from "The Watch" (20th Century Fox )
"The Watch" must have seemed like a good idea to someone, at some point in time. Featuring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill, the story of a civilian watch group that comes across an alien plot boasted three of comedy's biggest names. How big? The three, individually, were involved in some of the most successful and influential comedies of the last 20 years ("Wedding Crashers," "Knocked Up, "Tropic Thunder").
Yet "The Watch"-- which sat in development for years, dubbed "'The 'Burbs' with aliens” by some industry wags -- turned out to be a bad idea, a point one suspected from the dismissive reviews last week and confirmed Sunday with a soggy $13-million opening. It's the weakest wide-opener of Vaughn's entire career and the poorest for Stiller in eight years -- nothing to brag about when you consider that the period also included "The Heartbreak Kid." It's no accident that Hill is trying to segue into dramas.
With the exception of "21 Jump Street," no member of the trio has been able to effectively launch a new comedy in the last three years. And even "21 Jump Street" wasn't exactly new.
This would be bracing enough if it was limited to the three. It isn't. Adam Sandler had an abysmal effort earlier this summer -- add the box-office total and Rotten Tomatoes score and you still don't get anywhere close to 100, or 65 -- while Will Ferrell, a former box-office sure thing who himself at one point was set to star in "The Watch," has turned in far more flops than hits in the last four years. And let's not even get into Owen Wilson.
In fact, the few original comedies to succeed in the last couple of years have been as a result not of A-list reliables but out-of-left-field players -- the women of "Bridesmaids," Charlie Day and the rest of his overlooked "Horrible Bosses" cast, the CGI bear of "Ted." To succeed with a comedy you need a fresh premise, but you also need a fresh name. Being a familiar, reliable comedy brand is, more than ever, a liability.
That won't stop studios from leaning on them. Stiller takes a big swing with Fox's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," a remake of a mid-century classic he is not only starring in but directing. Fox is also going back to the well with Vaughn, reteaming him with Wilson for "The Internship," the latest arrested-development comedy from an actor who can't get enough of them.
Studio executives still want to give these fallen comedy heroes another chance. It's not clear you can say the same for the rest of us.
Movie review: "The Watch"
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