The Watch (nee Neighborhood Watch) truncated its title to avoid conjuring the February killing of Trayvon Martin and its plot contains no major similarities to the teen's controversial death. But in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting — which may have spawned at least one would-be copycat thwarted today in Maryland — some of the violence-based laughs in the Ben Stiller-Vince Vaughn comedy might hit too close to home for some moviegoers.
The comedy, about a suburban schmoe (Stiller) who starts a Neighborhood Watch gang after the murder of a friend, invokes the cultural conversation about violence that has been stirred anew by recent events. "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," writes Hollywood.com's Matt Patches, noting audible discomfort among moviegoers at a screening he attended.
Like the Columbine shooters and last week's Aurora gunman, Hill's character is a young white male with a violent streak on the fringe of society, who has a cache of firearms, including a semi-automatic rifle, stashed at home and is all too eager to use them again. Violent impulses mixed with societal frustrations are given a target when the Watch is called into action to battle their enemies — in this case, extraterrestrial aliens.
"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," Patches continues. "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."
"[When] we see bloodshed early on in The Watch, it stings more than it amuses," writes Salt Lake Tribune critic Sean P. Means in his review of the film. Hill's character goes from comic relief to a figure that "instead makes us wince."
Over at the Huffington Post, writer Jonathan Kim echoes the uneasy sentiment. The problem isn't that violent movies cause violent behavior, he says, but that America's gun-happy culture is so often reflected in its media.
"If American entertainment is seen as too violent, I see that as a reflection of our gun- and military-worshipping culture, not the cause of it," Kim offers. "And if people copy the violence they see in movies, the problem is not the movies, but people who can't tell fantasy from reality, and the ease with which our gun laws allow those people to arm themselves to the teeth. The Watch is obviously fiction, but sadly, when unstable people can buy such powerful weapons, we need to do more than just hope that they'll only be aimed at bad guys and aliens."
Ultimately most critics seem to agree that The Watch hardly earns the attention or scrutiny it may receive from Aurora parallels; it's currently at a dismal 13 percent at Rotten Tomatoes, while Movieline's Michelle Orange called it slight and ephemeral entertainment. But beyond that, I'd give writers Seth Rogen, Jared Stern, and Evan Goldberg enough credit to have purposefully written Hill's character as a commentary on the kind of gun-loving disaffected young man that could, under other circumstances, follow a much darker path.
Raw and shaken sensibilities didn't stop audiences from attending The Dark Knight Rises last weekend, but tracking approaching this weekend was flagging. As the national conversation about guns and violence and film rages on — and with most fans having already seen the event film — are audiences less enthusiastic to flock to theaters, post-TDKR? And if they do go to the multiplex for the latest Ben Stiller comedy, are they prepared to process shades of Aurora's gunman in Jonah Hill's angry, armed loner-turned-hero?
Just be warned: If you're going to the movies this weekend looking for escape from the real world, The Watch may hit closer to home than you anticipated. Then again, if Ben Stiller and Co. can inspire discussions about violence and gun control in America amid the broad guffaws, penis jokes, and one-liners, that might be a good thing for all involved.
- Jonah Hill