'Keeping Up with the Joneses'
‘Keeping Up with the Joneses’ is cute. If you’ve seen the trailer or even know the premise, the story doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises. It’s pretty standard suburbanite lameness humor with a little bit of spy hijinks tossed in to flavor with explosions and mild sexiness. What makes the movie rise just above the mediocre is the comedy talent involved.
Director Greg Mottola knows how to get the best out of a comedy cast. With the likes of Zach Galifianakis, Jon Hamm, Isla Fisher, Matt Walsh, and Patton Oswalt at his disposal, he gets some big laughs. The movie isn’t really about anything and is essentially just a string of improv sequences strung together with a few action beats for added popcorn appeal, but at least it hits those meager goals.
Galifianakis and Fisher star as Jeff and Karen Gaffney, one of those super boring suburban couples. You know the type. They’ve dedicated their lives to politeness, lawn care, home decorating, and child-raising. Jeff is even a Human Resources stooge, to compound his awkwardness with constant meaningless banter about self-improvement. Karen designs bathrooms because toilets are funny. Now their kids are gone and so is the spark. When two sexy new neighbors (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot) move in, Jeff and Karen are instantly fascinated to the point of stalking. However, the boring couple start to realize that the exciting couple are too perfect. In fact, they might even secretly be super spies. Did I mention that Jeff works in HR for NASA? He might have access to secrets (or folks holding secrets) that two spies may want. Hmmm… I wonder if that’ll come into play?
The plot of this movie is pretty standard stuff, in the sort of high concept way that sounds good in a pitch meeting but ultimately doesn’t amount to anything special. Chances are this whole thing started as a distinctly mediocre script. Thankfully, some talented folks got involved to at least ensure the laugh count runs high.
Directing duties fell to Mottola, who’s a curious case. As a writer/director, he makes very pained and subtle human dramedies like ‘The Daytrippers’ and ‘Adventureland’ that ache with emotion. As a director-for-hire, the guy makes stuff like ‘Superbad’, ‘Paul’ and ‘Clear History’ that tend to service his cast and writers. He knows enough about how to shoot a movie to mount a stylish set-piece, but his real talent is casting exceptionally well and then helping the actors he chose deliver the goods.
Galifianakis and Fisher make for a pretty delightful couple at the center. Galifianakis has long found humor in mocking boring middle class tastelessness and puts on a masterclass of lameness here, supplemented by some fantastically stupid wardrobe choices. Fisher is a bit more broadly comedic (as is her way), but knows how to get weird and do slapstick. No one is better at seeming secretly sleazy in his generic handsomeness than John Hamm, who has a ball raising suspicions through deadpan expressions. Gal Gadot isn’t quite that nuanced a performer, but she plays it straight and get laughs from being the one person not mugging on screen. Toss in some improv and stand-up veterans like Matt Walsh and Patton Oswalt around the edges, and you’ve got a movie that rarely lets a scene pass without a big dumb laugh. It’s obvious that Mottola and his cast had fun doing everything they could to wring jokes out of every scene, and that fun is infectious.
‘Keeping Up with the Joneses’ delivers the comedy that ticket buyers are promised. The giggles run rampant. However, the story is so simple that it never quite feels like anyone is invested in it on either side of the camera. The movie goes through the motions of storytelling, but really only exists for the momentary laughs from scene-to-scene. That makes it pretty unsatisfying as a whole. Although it’s entertaining to watch all these people go wild, and Mottola has enough sense of pacing and spectacle to make it feel like a movie, it’s ultimately nothing more than empty laughs. It has nothing to think about afterwards, and nothing to get you worried or excited in the moment. Viewers just bounce from joke to joke and then are invited to dispose of the flick the moment the credits roll. There’s nothing wrong with that when this many jokes hit. It just doesn’t make for much of a movie and pretty much eliminates replay value.