Four continually-squabbling middle-aged suburban nerds form a neighbourhood watch to tackle pesky aliens that are troubling the place. Yes, folks, it’s the setup of Ghostbusters, with aliens replacing ghosts. If the story idea seems second hand and a bit stale, so are the gags in this surprisingly weak and clunky script by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg (writers of the brilliant Superbad) and Jared Stern that often manages to be a comedy vacuum for entire minutes at a time.

Here’s the dramatic arc. It starts slow, livens up for a while as the alien theme kicks in, then gets slow and boring again till it manages an explosive finish.

So who are you gonna call to try to make it work? Well, if anyone could, it would be Hollywood comedy royalty Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn and heir apparent Jonah Hill, with an added breath of fresh air from Brit comedy actor Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd, Submarine). These are all extremely, reliably funny, likeable men, but they’ve hit a floundering script that simply can’t bring all its elements together successfully, let alone hilariously. Farce, gross-out comedy, sci-fi, romance and drama are strange bedfellows that need comic genius and magic to work brilliantly together. Alas, this script wasn’t sprinkled with fairy dust.

It goes like this. After Evan Trautwig (Stiller), a nice but drearily over-earnest supermarket manager in Glenview, Ohio, finds one of his workers murdered in the workplace, he starts a neighbourhood watch group, for which he is able only to recruit three sad misfits; loudmouthed slob Bob (Vaughn), unstable mama’s boy Franklin (Hill), and the strangely offbeat weirdo Jamarcus (Ayoade). It’s all carefully spelled out: Evan is a man who feels he has to constantly form new groups simply because he can’t make friends any other way, Bob joins to monitor his daughter’s dates, Franklin uses it as a substitute for the police force who has rejected him and Jamarcus wants to meet hot Asian housewives.

It’s true that the star quartet manages to raise laughs and titters from time to time, making the utmost out of the script’s occasionally amusing situations and funny one-liners. But mostly the comedians often find themselves falling flat on their asses as they misjudge the comic value of their sometimes dimwitted one-liners and the effort to be funny shows. Stiller is too low key, Vaughn overplays, Hill seems bored and underpowered and Ayoade seems to be performing in a different film.

Still, we want to like it, and it’s a harmless enough timepasser.

Derek Winnert (c) 2012