by Philip Price
There is a point in the newest comedy from director Greg Mottola where it seems this broad comedy might rise above the grind it seems so destined to follow, but it only ends up being a brief moment of wackiness that Mottola and crew don’t care to dedicate themselves to carrying out. Rather, “Keeping Up With the Joneses” continues its stride toward the mediocre with very little to serve as surprising or inspired despite being made by the guy who put together “Superbad” and “Adventureland.” Yes, Mottola, the man who directed the likes of one of the great high school comedies of the last 15 years as well as tapping into the struggles of that weird time post-college where you’re not sure where to go from that point has made a movie for the first time in five years that in fact couldn’t feel more uninspired. My hope, when I saw that Mottola was directing, was that the trailers and TV spots for the film might intentionally be setting our expectation bar low so that when we finally saw the finished product we might be taken with how much better it actually is than we expected. And while this does somewhat happen given the trailers and TV spots indeed made this look terrible in the vein of a run of the mill comedy that says let's put your average person in the midst of a ridiculous situation and see how funny they act in response to it kind of way. Still, with the talent Mottola and the studio garnered for this project my hope was that the film might bring something deeper or more acute to the scenario of superspies in suburbia, but there is no such sly observations or social commentary to be found in “Keeping Up With the Joneses”. Unfortunately, all we have here is a wacky situational comedy that too often relies on lead Zach Galifianakis’ one-liners too lift it from the doldrums of the generic jokes and obvious pratfalls Michael LeSieur’s screenplay is built on. LeSieur (“You, Me & Dupree”) seems the type of comedy writer who comes up with an interesting or funny enough scenario and then applies it to a familiar structure making the final product more predictable than laugh-inducing. That said, “Keeping Up With the Joneses” is about as good (and bad) as one would expect given the terrible trailers. It’s familiar and overly safe, but the fun performances from each of the four leads lend it a spring in its step that otherwise would have left this thing dead on arrival.
“Keeping Up With the Joneses” is set in an idyllic suburban cul-de-sac where Jeff Gaffney (Galifianakis) and his wife Karen (Isla Fisher) find absolute happiness. The summer season is upon them and they have shipped their two young sons off to camp for a few weeks leaving them alone in their paradise which they inevitably have no idea what do with. They are a married couple completely wrapped up in the material existence of their neighborhood that finds the greatest of joys in their get-togethers such as “Junetoberfest” or in the security that many of them work for the same major tech corporation around the corner. It is this corporation that serves to be the crux of the screenplay though, for as soon as Jeff and Karen are getting ready to figure out how exactly to spend all of their free time they are delivered new neighbors in the form of Tim (Jon Hamm) and Natalie Jones (Gal Gadot). Tim and Natalie seem too perfect to be true -- too well put together and composed while participating in far too many extracurricular activities outside of their seemingly spectacular jobs that place Tim as a travel writer and Natalie as a social media consultant/activist for Sri Lankan orphans. While Jeff, who is a Human Resources guy at ABJ, prides himself on being able to connect and read people he doesn’t agree with Karen’s assessment that the Joneses are too good to be true, too perfect to be real and too calculated to be genuine if not up to something nefarious. And thus, much of the movie hinges on Karen trying to prove her theory correct while Jeff is more inspired by the prospect of making a new friend in Tim. These quests of sorts become their adventures for the summer that take the place of whatever activities they might have taken up with their children, but in something of a surprising fashion (one of the few the script allows) Jeff and Karen indeed figure out the truth of Tim and Natalie's existence and purpose in their peaceful suburb about halfway through the film. This opening up of the discovery of the truth sooner rather than later allows for the second half of the film to feel a bit more energetic and put forth a momentum that at least passes the time in a more pleasing fashion rather than the plodding along of the necessary, but overly expositional first half. Allowing the bumbling Jeff and the half-skilled, half-straight up crazy Karen to join forces with the experts turns out to be the films secret weapon as it doesn't choose to push Jeff and Karen to the side in favor of more action and less comedy with the reveal of Tim and Natalie actually being spies. It's as if the cast and Mottola knew the closer they came to finishing the film that it wasn't going to be very good (not that they necessarily shot it in order) and so they invested more in making the finale a little more singular and not so common despite the final product still being as average as ever.
A lot of what makes “Keeping Up With the Joneses” work as well as it does (or can) is the casting-in type of each of its principle actors. In other words, these are all people we've seen the likes of Galifianakis, Hamm and Gadot play before. Fisher is the odd woman out here and one doesn't necessarily think of her as a necessarily frumpy or off-putting woman desperate for attention, but quite the opposite actually as her breakout role in “Wedding Crashers” will forever position her as the first choice to portray a perfect balance of crazy and sexy. But in “Keeping Up With the Joneses” LeSieur’s script mainly calls for the red-headed beauty to play the crazy up and little else. Though Karen is right in this instance she is undoubtedly on some serious crazy pills as Fisher plays her more as inherently jealous rather than crazily curious. And it's not that Fisher can't play the suburbanite mom who has everything under control with her work-from-home interior design job, but the point seems to be that Karen isn't exactly satisfied in this role despite the facade she presents to the rest of her cul-de-sac and more importantly, to Jeff, who seemingly couldn't be happier. This is where one might expect for the film to begin to pull back the layers on domestic anxiety and reveal the scary truth that only so much happiness can be found in something as simple as your neighborhood. Instead of exposing this aspect of Americana which, given the set-up, one would think to be the intent of the film, “Keeping Up With the Joneses” embraces this idea and goes on to more or less agree with it. Sure, it recommends such a quiet and peaceful existence be balanced with a few excursions or getaways to keep the spice alive not only in life, but in marriage, but it seems the intent of the film from the get-go is to kind of rail against and make fun of people who take out such happiness in the simplicity of beautifully landscaped corner lots, but LeSieur doesn't have the gall to flat-out make fun of suburban America. Instead, he ends up describing them as endearing and bringing the two couples at the core of his film full circle in that Jeff and Karen learn a few things from Tim and Natalie and vice versa. The metaphor that Tim and Natalie exist to serve is that of the necessary chaos in life, or more specifically, to kind of amplify the ridiculousness the overly domesticated place on the ultimate insignificance of "trendy needs" and other demands, but “Keeping Up With the Joneses” isn't a perceptive enough comedy to really translate this metaphor successfully. Instead, it becomes an action comedy where neither of those categories shine bright enough for the film to rise above its standard execution.
And yet, despite the mediocre taste this film leaves in your mouth there is something admirable about what it feels the quartet of actors are conveying here. Though Fisher's character is short-changed on paper it is easy to take away from the performance on screen what the actress has given the outline of the needy housewife who is so desperate for any type of excitement that she'll invent illusions of her neighbors being government spies. Fisher not only gives Karen the credibility past the fact we know she's right based on the trailers, but more the credence of a sane person by virtue of the chemistry she and Galifianakis share on screen. Though Galifianakis is usually cast to play the part of the weirdo or oddball misfit he in all actuality can physically appear as the guy next door without hardly trying. Even more since his weight loss the comic appears especially at home in a pair of khaki's and plaid shirt lending to his overall facade of a harmless guy who is genuinely forthright and friendly. More than anywhere in the script, this is where that endearing quality in the unexceptional comes from and makes it more worth admiring than the fearfulness this aspect of the writing possesses. On the other side of things, Hamm is completely in the zone as this ruggedly handsome secret agent who is supposed to be a relaxed, but adventurous observer of the world. Hamm is so casually cool in his approach to Tim that he can walk through the middle of an explosion or barrage of bullets and calmly address others in the room asking if they are okay. It is small moments, small character insights added by the actors that make the predictable arc and plot that plays by the rules more fun than it has any right to be. It is that these actors have been cast in favor of the type they typically play that Gadot largely gets away with not having to stretch her persona too far. In her major roles in the “Fast & Furious” films and as Wonder Woman Gadot has had to play a heroine of a restrained caliber. In spite of the level of adversaries she faces her characters always remain calm, cool, and collected. This is very much how Gadot plays the unfailingly beautiful and successful Natalie without much bandwidth for anything else. That isn't to say there isn't a level of charisma in her performance as Mottola likely couldn't have hoped for anyone to play this particular role any better, but Gadot simply adds nothing more than what is necessary to the part. Cobbling together this “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” concept via “Neighbors,” the talented and charming cast save this high-concept comedy whose delivery can't match its ideas from being a complete waste of time into little more than a fun, 100-minute distraction.