Summit Entertainment via Everett Collection
Beneath the many tiers of convoluted sci-fi world building that make up the skin of Divergent, there is what might pass for a simple and humane heart: the message that a person should be more than "just one thing." That the truly worthwhile among us won't fit so snugly into the rigid compartments instituted by society — both ours and that of Future Chicago — because "not fitting in," as it turns out, is actually a better gig. That in Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), we — the silent majority of outcasts — have a new idol to vocalize the values in being different. But it's really difficult to attach yourself to a character like Tris with writing this terrible.
Although the parameters of her role would logically allow for enough personality, imagination, and good old fashioned chutzpah to make Tris a relatable human being, there is almost no personality to be found in the script's version of the hero. The entire Divergent world is lacking in this area, in fact. From the onset of her introductory voice-over (almost forgivable, because there might actually be no other way to introduce a society so cluelessly complicated), we can feel something lacking in the construction of the film's hero. Tris explains the nature of the five societal factions that exist in Future Chicago — Dauntless (the brave), Abnegation (the selfless), Erudite (the intelligent), and two others that don't really come into play, mentioning with a foreboding tone that those who don't belong to any faction are shunned by the world and cast to desolation (that's her, if you don't already know). But in these crucial opening minutes, Tris' exposition is as lifeless as it is brainless. Starting with Erudite, Tris fawns like an empty-headed child, "They know everything." A regrettably imbecilic line, but probably the peak of the character's nuance. From there, we get very little out of Tris, or any other of Divergent's citizens, that isn't cold, bloodless exposition and the action necessary to courier it to a sating box office end game.
Summit Entertainment via Everett Collection
No one in this story about "being yourself" feels at all like he or she has a self to be. Run through the gears of a world too insistently mechanical to evoke anything real (despite the generosity of its central "fitting in" conceit), the people end up flat, thin, and dry, never once uttering a line of dialogue that is in any way personal... or in any small way not tailored to the larger game of misguided set-up at play. Against this backdrop, a pronounced Tris Prior might have been doubly effective. But it's not some grand schematic on the part of director Neil Burger and screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor to paint a gray world behind a glimmering hero. It's just an ostensible inability to draw anything human.
There are a couple of reasons why we hesitate to call Tris a truly terrible character. The first is Woodley. With so little to work with, she is, admittedly, good. Her action carries weight, her tears beget ours, and we do actually root for her to come out okay. All of the charm we're accrediting to Tris is Woodley's doing, and we know from past turns that with a better script in her hands this rising star could do wonders. The second is that, in outline form, Tris might be the best YA heroine we've gotten lately. Her decisions stem from a drive for independence and personal fulfillment. True, her primarily relationship is with a brooding jock, the unfortunately named Four (Theo James), to whom she plays the eager therapist more than anything else. But she also has a somewhat empowering bond with her mother (Ashley Judd) and an admittedly under cooked but at the very least occasionally present rapport with faction-mate Christina (Zoe Kravitz). So... something.
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Without a real character in which to root these small victories, though, they amount to very little. Just additional slices of the soulless, joyless, mindless deep dish pie that is this movies. But Chicago's dystopian fiction fails the same way that its pizza does: over stuffed with empty calories and lacking any recognizable flavor.
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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.