Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
Every year, unfortunate events of all shapes and sizes create hurdles for Hollywood and their slate of movies. But no film in recent memory has been at the wrong end of the aforementioned as Fox's The Watch. Formally known as Neighborhood Watch, the film follows a group of knucklehead suburbanites who form their own watch squad in order to protect their small Ohio town. An early trailer for the film, featuring a shot of Jonah Hill pretending to shoot a pedestrian from the window of a patrolling SUV, didn't help the matter. The gag would have been hilarious… if the trailer didn't coincide with the May 2012 media blitz surrounding the Trayvon Martin shooting case. The spot was immediately axed out of sensitivity to the situation, the title trimmed to disconnect the film from George Zimmerman, the perpetrator of Martin's death who was a member of his local neighborhood watch.
Fox's decision to alter the marketing campaign for The Watch was completely preemptive — people hadn't seen the movie and the studio insisted nothing in the film was remotely close to mimicking the murder — but the first rule of business trumps all: the customer is always right. In the wake of the title truncation, questions were raised over the movie's future. Would Fox push the release date to distance audiences from the blaring reporting of Martin's murder? Nope — the studio stood strong. The Watch opened today in theaters.
Back in May, keeping The Watch locked for its July release was the right move. The Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn/Jonah Hill comedy is very funny and doesn't have a single scene that evokes memories of Zimmerman's bizarre act. They're a neighborhood watch who barely watch the neighborhood. They only take down a young person once, after the team is pelted with eggs. Even then, they're the least threatening bunch ever to patrol the streets. Fox was right. They knew the film. They didn't have anything to worry about when it came to The Watch/Trayon connection.
Yet, in the context of modern events, the silly comedy is more than surface level entertainment. People will be left uncomfortable, but not for the reasons anyone could have ever predicted. Last Friday, a massacre took place in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, an act of murder that left America shaken. Profiles of the gunman and ruminations on the tragedy instantly filled news feeds. Violence was on society's collective brain.
In the first few minutes of The Watch, Ben Stiller's character Evan is alerted that his friend has been murdered. Much to his dismay, police tell Evan they don't have any leads on the unknown assailant (although we, the audience, are well aware that it's a pesky extraterrestrial). As an upstanding citizen, the do-gooder becomes committed to discovering the truth. He makes t-shirts embroidered with a blunt phrase: "NO MORE MURDERS." He heads to a local football stadium to rally the people and put an end to killing once and for all. The crowed boos him — they want to watch football!
The Watch, sadly, has a handful of these moments. Sequences that (for many) will go from gut-busting to gut-wrenching in a matter of seconds. The air in a room changes — there weren't walkouts at my particular screening, but in a moment where Jonah Hill's military-obsessed character Franklin threatens a group of teenagers with a pocket knife, muttering that he'll "kill each and everyone of [them]", the cringes reached audible levels.
Franklin's entire persona is eerily similar to those that have lashed out in the past: he's a high school drop out, reject of the police academy, and object of bullying by the socially normal people around him. He wants to serve justice, but he's inherently violent. Hill plays Frankin for comedy, and in another moment in history the act would be hysterical, but in the wake of tragedy it's simply uncomfortable. The Aurora shooting's effect on The Watch hits a pinnacle late in the film, when the team requires weaponry to take down the alien scum. They head to Franklin's mom's house (yes, he still lives with his mother), where the youngest member of the group hides his stash of guns and ninja stars. From under his bed he pulls a semi-automatic rifle. Cue the audience squirming.
It's important to reiterate that 95% of The Watch is filled with laugh-out-loud gags. Stupid, but funny. The murder and violence elements of the film are ingrained into the entire feature. No trimming could take out the overtones that directly tie it to last weeks events. Unlike the Trayvon Martin events, no one's talking about it. Even when other studios are recutting and pushing their films, Fox has been mum when it comes to The Watch and potential upsetting material present in the film (Hollywood.com reached out to the studio but have not received comment). That said, with only a week-long window, there was little the studio could do beyond completely burying the film. The non-reaction might be the wisest move: stay low, and let the comedy do the talking. But the truth is, there's provocative material in The Watch with the potential to set people off. Not a reason to damn the movie, but a reason to give sensitive potential ticket buyers a heads up.
There's a scene in the The Watch that's straight out of a Michael Bay movie. Our geeky heroes back out of a room, guns a-blazin' as they're pursued by some creatures not of this world. Bullets fly in slow motion, gangster rap making the whole shebang ridiculous. The scene is spoof, but it's also glorification of firearms. Hollywood dabbles in violence casually, even in a comedy. The penchant for glamorizing gun use isn't a good thing or a bad thing, but it does raise eyebrows when something horrific happens in the real world. That's what has happened with The Watch. Weeks ago, people would have caught the flick, let out a few chuckles, then headed home. The Watch will have people talking — intentionally or not. Murphy's Law strikes again.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]