Greg Mottola has made some fine contributions to big-screen comedy — including sweet-and-salty teen flicks Adventureland and Superbad — but his new film, Keeping Up With the Joneses, is decidedly not one of them.
Stale as week-old bread and every bit as bland, the movie saddles a strong cast with a groaningly ineffectual script (courtesy of Michael LeSieur, who wrote 2006’s You, Me and Dupree) and wastes the director’s gift for bringing lived-in charm and feeling to broad comic premises. It’s been obvious for a while now, but bears repeating: At a time when we’re spoiled with satisfyingly funny small-screen options, laugh-challenged multiplex fare like Keeping Up With the Joneses just doesn’t cut it. Why shell out 15 bucks for this junk if you can tune into the latest season of Black-ish, check out new gems like HBO’s Insecure, FX’s Better Things and Amazon’s Fleabag, or just google Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on SNL? Even by standards of low-IQ escapism, the film falls short. At least Masterminds, another recent goof-fest headlined by Keeping Up With the Joneses star Zach Galifianakis, gave the actor an epically awful pageboy hairdo to divert our attention from its disappointments.
Mottola’s movie wasn’t without potential. There’s an appealing quaintness to its story of a married couple who become convinced their glamorous neighbors are spies. Unlike most studio comedies these days, Keeping Up With the Joneses isn’t brashly vulgar, nor does it try, aside from a lame Caitlyn Jenner joke, to be zeitgeisty. The problem is that it doesn’t really try at all. Imagine Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery plus I Love You, Man, multiplied by Mr. & Mrs. Smith, divided by TV series The Americans. Minus all the wit, spark and deftness.
Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Galifianakis and Isla Fisher) enjoy a life of comfortable if numbing suburban averageness in the Atlanta area. He’s a straight-arrow HR manager who cheerfully submits employees to asinine trust games and conflict resolution exercises. She’s a perky interior decorator suffering from a lack of inspiration. With their kids at camp for the summer, Jeff and Karen vow to spend some quality time together, but empty-nest syndrome starts to take hold.
That’s when distraction, and possibly danger, arrives in the genetically blessed forms of Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot), who move into the house next door. Tim, a travel writer, speaks multiple languages and has a head of hair made for shampoo commercials. His wife Natalie is a social media editor and food blogger with runway-ready legs and cheekbones for days. Jeff and Tim begin a tentative bromance — dorky Jeff seems flattered that the suave, casually macho Tim even acknowledges his existence — but Karen decides that “there’s something off” about the Joneses. When she finds Tim snooping around upstairs during a barbecue hosted by the Gaffneys, she sets out to do some snooping of her own.
Thuddingly obvious hijinks ensue as Karen, “incognito” in a hat and sunglasses, follows Natalie around town — an operation that concludes with the two women facing off in a lingerie store dressing room. (The movie’s use of lesbian “tension” to titillate and amuse, culminating in an especially depressing girl-on-girl kiss, feels dated and desperate.)
Mottola and LeSieur fumble the big set pieces, including a sequence that finds the Gaffneys breaking into the Jones residence to look for clues; the rhythm is off, the jokes don’t land, the gags are sluggish and unimaginative. You know things are dire when one of the most amusing bits consists of Jeff accidentally smashing Karen’s head into a wall. Even scenes that have a flicker of comic invention — as when, toward the end of the film, the Joneses start bickering at a diner, the sexy, unflappable twosome momentarily unraveled by the same neuroses that haunt normal couples — peter out before they get good.
Galifianakis, in what might be described as the Will Ferrell role, has a few giggle-worthy lines (sitting down at an underground Chinese eatery, he marvels, “Look at all these little ethnic condiments!”). But it’s safe to say the actor is better at playing creepy man-children than regular squares. He and the always likeable Fisher pull faces and do pratfalls, throwing their considerable skill and timing at material that, apart from a throwaway touch or two (there’s a good quip about crooked British teeth), is essentially irredeemable.
Hamm offers up a breezy variation on his tormented Mad Men protagonist Don Draper, and he’s a pleasure — the only one who doesn’t seem to be trying too hard. Gadot looks fittingly stunning and bad-ass, though on the basis of her work here, comedy may not be her strong suit.
The sparse supporting cast includes Veep‘s terrific Matt Walsh, an inadvertent reminder of how much more fun we could be having watching something else.
Production companies: A Fox 2000 Pictures and Parkes+MacDonald Image Nation production
Cast: Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot, Maribeth Monroe, Matt Walsh, Patton Oswalt
Director: Greg Mottola
Writer: Michael LeSieur
Producers: Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald
Executive producers: Timothy M. Bourne
Cinematographer: Andrew Dunn
Production designer: Mark Ricker
Editor: David Rennie
Costume designer: Ruth Carter
Music: Jake Monaco
Rated PG-13, 101 minutes