All three of this week’s new releases revolve around characters whose lives are thrown out of balance by the arrival of an outside presence.
In “The Watch,” a group of Ohio men with clashing personalities form a neighborhood watch following a grisly homicide only to find out that the murderer is not of this world.
The group consists of anal retentive Costco manager Evan (Ben Stiller), police force reject Franklin (Jonah Hill), witty Brit Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade) and Bob (Vince Vaughn), who has built a man-cave in his basement and is struggling with a teenage daughter who has begun dating.
The picture blends gross out humor and an abundance of potty language with some special effects that are pretty gory for a comedy of this sort.
The film is occasionally funny, but mostly unnecessary, and the leads are mostly required to give the same performances we’ve seen from them all before. Ayoade sticks out slightly due to his cheery line readings.
There are certainly worse comedies this summer – “That’s My Boy,” anyone? – but “The Watch” could have been better than just another mediocre alien invasion movie.
Thankfully, this week’s independent features were more successful.
“Ruby Sparks” is also a comedy with a fantastical scenario, but it aims for more than just cheap laughs.
The film is the sophomore effort from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, whose “Little Miss Sunshine” I found to be a little overrated.
Their latest is an improvement in every way. In the picture, Paul Dano plays Calvin, an author who became a sensation as a teenager with his debut novel. But 10 years have passed and he is stuck writing short stories and novellas, rather than writing a second novel.
He is also unlucky in love and counts his brother (Chris Messina) as his only friend.
One night, he dreams of the titular character, a lively young woman (Zoe Kazan) who soon becomes the lead in his new novel.
He is then, at first, dismayed and, then later, overjoyed, to find that by creating Ruby, he has willed her into existence. She literally appears one morning in his apartment.
While the scenario allows for some humor, it also takes the narrative off into some interesting directions, especially as Calvin must decide whether to continue writing Ruby’s character to cater to his needs or allow her to become her own, independent person.
Its set-up may sound gimmicky, but “Ruby Sparks” is an original, charming and occasionally moving romantic comedy.
On the complete opposite side of the movie-going spectrum is William Friedkin’s deliriously lurid “Killer Joe,” a crime drama based on the play by Tracy Letts, author of “August: Osage County.”
Moviegoers who require likable characters to be able to enjoy a movie should probably skip “Killer Joe.” Those who don’t mind diving head first into a world of sleazy individuals without a redeeming quality may get a kick out of it. I did.
In the film, a nitwit (Emile Hirsch) with gambling debts decides to have his nasty mother – never seen onscreen – bumped off to collect $50,000 insurance, which he has been told will go to his seemingly innocent younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple).
He brings his dopey father (Thomas Haden Church) and white trash stepmother (Gina Gershon) in on the plan, which involves hiring Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a corrupt Dallas detective who moonlights as an assassin for hire.
Of course, the plan does not go according to schedule and the characters find themselves in way over their heads, especially after Joe demands to hold Dottie as his retainer until he is paid in full.
This is a grim little number, but effectively done. It’s filled from beginning to end with reprehensible behavior, including a scene that I guarantee will forever make you think differently of fried chicken.
And McConaughey is terrific. The actor, who had been stuck in romantic comedy purgatory for years, is in the midst of a career turnaround year with his comedic turn in “Bernie,” his yet-to-be-released leading role in Jeff Nichols’s “Mud,” his sure-to-be-nominated work in “Magic Mike” and his portrayal of a sociopath in “Killer Joe.”
I’d recommend “Killer Joe,” but you might feel the need to take a shower afterward.
"The Watch" is playing at Midway Theater on Queens Boulevard. "Ruby Sparks" is screening at Regal Union Square Stadium 14 and opens at Kew Gardens Cinemas on Aug. 10. "Killer Joe" is playing at the Sunshine Cinema.