The Watch: Last summer had an unprecedented run of hit R-rated comedies, starting with Bridesmaids and continuing on down with The Hangover Part II, Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses, and even the innocuous rom-com Friends with Benefits. The streak ran out by August with The Change-Up and 30 Minutes or Less, which didn’t seem odd at the time but now threatens to turn into a prolonged R-comedy hangover: The Sitter went by with little notice over the holiday season; Wanderlust, American Reunion, and Five-Year Engagement ranged from modest to poor returns in the spring (and all from Universal!); and this summer has already seen The Dictator and That’s My Boy underperform, and only 21 Jump Street and Ted hit it big. I try not to read too much into the appearance of box office trends, but it does seem that for whatever reason, audiences are shrugging their shoulders at a lot of seventeen-plus comedies, and given last year’s bumper crop, that is strange (especially if you unscientifically factor in my opinion that a bunch of this year’s comedies have been pretty good, especially the wildly sloppy but very funny Sacha Baron Cohen joint).
Into this fray jump a bizarre all-star team: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill, joined by The IT Crowd‘s Richard Ayode, star in The Watch, from a screenplay at least rewritten by Seth Rogen and Jonah Goldberg, and directed not by Shawn Levy (though he did produce it), but Akiva Schaffer, the Lonely Island cohort who previously made Hot Rod, a movie I like very much that nonetheless gave absolutely no one the impression that its makers would be allowed to make another one.
For middle-ground fans of Stiller and Vaughn who don’t reject them outright and understand that they have been very funny in certain movies (and very good in their serious-actor forays) regardless of the domesticated Fockers and/or couples-counseling comedies, The Watch looks refreshing. But the R rating, so coveted by certain fans, may signal more audience rejection.
As interested as I am in seeing Stiller and Vaughn in particular shake off the doldrums of some of their biggest hits, those hits generally aren’t R-rated. As much as we (and by “we” I mean a very statistically small segment of the film-watching populace) all love Vaughn in Swingers, he’s not the guy in the rated-R movie; Couples Retreat and Four Christmases were big hits, and even less terrible efforts like The Break-Up and Dodgeball were PG-13. Only Wedding Crashers made a ton of money for him with the restricted rating, just as Tropic Thunder and There’s Something About Mary are decade-separated outliers in terms of Stiller’s biggest hits. Hill, though, has made his living almost exclusively in R-rated fare; though Vaughn and Stiller are far bigger stars, this feels like Hill’s sandbox more than theirs—except when you factor in the movie involving a neighborhood watch team uncovering an alien invasion, which bounces us back to Shawn Levy territory again. But regardless of the movie’s box office fortunes, I can’t imagine this won’t represent a step up for at least some of its participants.
Step Up: Revolution: As the Year of Channing Tatum continues unabated, the little franchise that he started marches on, too—though the odds of it outgrossing the Soderbergh dance movie (sidenote: I’m still so impressed that this exists!) seem to be approximately nil. Tatum’s Step Up was actually the worst of the bunch, emphasizing a sleepwalking ballet-set romance over the acrobatic (and, lately, 3-D) dance moves of the later entries. The best, in case you’re wondering, is probably Step Up 2 the Streets, although the series’ single best sequence is probably a long-take old-timey dance scene from Step Up 3 that turns New York streets into a musical backlot. [Right around St. Mark's Church! That scene is the absolute balls. -Ed.]
Honestly, these Step Up movies have better musical sequences than most big studio attempts at musicals, though I do wish they’d just go all the way and do some on-screen singing and make it official. The newest entry, inexplicably not actually called Step Up 4 Revolution, adds “social protest dance” or something into the mix, which is to say: take that, Peter Gallagher! It will probably not be as charming as Step Up 2 the Streets. It will probably also be a way better movie than Rock of Ages. It’s too bad Cruise’s character from that movie couldn’t just turn up here instead. I also hope this movie inspires a clumsily named dancing videogame: Step Up! Step Up! Revolution!
Ruby Sparks: I get into it further in my review, but I’m surprised that so many critics have tumbled for Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s follow-up to Little Miss Sunshine (I’m not the biggest fan of insta-backlash, but doesn’t Little Miss Sunshine seem sort of like one of those movies everyone really liked at the time but should be now blaming for all of its cloying ancestors?) [Did everyone really like that movie at the time? You and I seek out different default consensuses, I think. -Ed]. I sure wanted to like a movie about Paul Dano accidentally manifesting a real Zoe Kazan out of his novel-writing fantasy woman, especially with Kazan handling the screenplay. But what threatens to go too cute actually goes the other way: it’s kind of unpleasant and one-note, and weirdly self-conscious about what a creep its lead character might be. It’s too bad, because Kazan has real presence, and I loved her recent interview where she talked about the potential misogyny in the smugly beloved “manic pixie dream girl” terminology popularized by The AV Club’s Nathan Rabin. To that end, Ruby Sparks is resonant, in its way, without actually being much good.
Killer Joe: It seems that William Friedkin has invented and then stepped into the “adapting old Tracy Letts plays” phase of a directing career. Backtracking from the 1996 play Bug turned into the 2006 movie of the same name, Friedkin has brought the 1993 play, Letts’s first, to the screen. Bug was, for those who actually saw it or paid attention to audience reactions, a remarkably unpleasant but intensely visceral experience (hence an extremely low CinemaScore grade, almost always the sign of something interesting).
Killer Joe doesn’t look quite so itchy, but then again, it also managed the rare NC-17 rating, and until I saw the trailer, everything I knew about it had to do with an already-notorious fucked-up last scene that made me pretty disinclined to see it. Now that I’ve seen what a roll Matthew McConaughey is on, though, and having enjoyed August: Osage County and, uh, admired Bug in a fashion, I’ll probably have to check it out. That poor bastard Friedkin sure isn’t getting a shot at August: Osage County, though, is he? Maybe he’ll get a chance at doing Superior Donuts.