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The Watch

Troubled by unfortunate event after unfortunate event, The Watch sidesteps faux pas to come out on top as a consistently funny sci-fi comedy that doesn't let its high concept tangle up a bevy of one-liners. The script, penned by Jared Stern, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, assumes you've seen a few movies before entering the theater (mainly, any sci-fi movie made in the 1980s). ''Summer movie logic'' is the foundation for The Watch's ridiculous plot, which finds four adult nincompoops teaming up to form a Neighborhood Watch, trying to solve the murder of a local Costco employee, and eventually pursuing a killer extraterrestrial. Instead of making sense of it all, The Watch wisely focuses on its four leads: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and The IT Crowd's Richard Ayoade — a quartet whose bro banter goes a long way in spicing up the dust-covered material. There's nothing revelatory to be found in The Watch, but the cast's knack for improv, a poetry of the profane, makes the adventure worth…viewing.

Director Akiva Schaffer (Hot Rod) establishes his two-dimensional characters quickly and bluntly, smashing together broad personality types like a Hadron Collider of cinematic comedy. Stiller's Evan is a micromanaging do-gooder who can't find time for his wife; Hill's Franklin is a mildly disturbed weapons enthusiast yearning to join the police; Ayoade is the quaint weirdo who joins the Watch to fill the void left by his divorce; Vince Vaughn is Vince Vaughn: a loud, crass gent looking for a bit of male bonding. The ragtag team assembles to fight crime, but they spend most of their time drinking beers in a minivan — an affair they dub ''stakeouts.'' A perfect opportunity for banter.

For a movie about enforcing the law and alien invasions, there's a surprising lack of action in The Watch. Long stretches of the film see the central players yapping back and forth about everything: Russian nesting dolls, peeing in cans, or the similar viscosities of alien goo and human excrement. Charisma goes a long way, and Vaughn does much of the heavy lifting, making up for lost time out of the spotlight (he's been virtually nonexistent since 2005's Wedding Crashers). The man spits out jokes like no other — the rest of the cast barely keeps up. Ayoade balances out Vaughn's bombardment with a tempered, timed delivery that's uniquely British and rarely found on the American big screen. Even when nothing's happening in The Watch, it's rarely boring.

The Watch is at its best when it goes a step further, mixing the group in with outsiders and throwing them off their rhythm. Billy Crudup cuts loose as a creepy neighbor and its delightfully weird, while the always-impressive Rosemarie DeWitt as Evan's wife Abby brings unexpected warmth to the couple's relationship. Sadly, The Watch mishandles its greatest asset: the aliens. The film never finds a pitch perfect blend of comedy and science fiction (Ghostbusters or Galaxy Quest this is not); a few scenes where the two come together hint at the best possible scenario, but more often than not, The Watch avoids its sci-fi roots. A moment in which the guys haul a dead alien back to their man cave plays like an E.T.-inspired version of The Hangover credits. It's lewd and ridiculous, but the rest of the film struggles to maintain that energy.

Stiller, Vaughn, Hill, and Ayoade have all proved themselves able funnymen, capable of taking weak and tired material up a notch, which they're forced to do in every moment of The Watch. Schaffer can handle his talent, but his direction isn't adding anything to the mix. By the third slow-motion-set-to-gangster-rap scene, The Lonely Island member's obsession with non-cool-coolness is officially just an attempt at being cool (which is not all that funny). The Watch has a greater opportunity than most comedy blockbusters to go absolutely bonkers: it's rated R. But instead of taking its twist and running with it, the movie plays it safe. In this case, safe is non-stop jokes about the many facets of human reproduction. rated this film 2 1/2 stars.