Film Review: Keeping Up with the Joneses

In this laugh-free turkey, one couple’s humdrum suburban life gets a turbocharge when an exciting new couple moves into their cul-de-sac; can you guess which couples Jon Hamm and Zach Galifianakis are in?
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A subpar knockoff of the kind of tired action-comedy hybrid that Paul Feig’s suddenly made a career out of, Keeping Up with the Joneses is no Spy. It’s not even Spies Like Us. Like just about every other comedic spy film out there, its plot is just another one of those getting-out-of-your-comfort-zone devices. You know the drill, familiar in everything from True Lies to Date Night: ordinary person or couple gets accidentally mixed up in espionage shenanigans and along the way discovers reservoirs of strength, ingenuity and courage they didn’t realize were there. At the end, of course, all is well, save for a few corpses scattered along the way, but no matter; none of those were characters that mattered.

That is all true with the draggy, preposterously unfunny Keeping Up with the Jones, only more so. Karen and Jeff Gaffney (Isla Fisher and Zach Galifianakis) are happy enough with life in their cookie-cutter suburban cul-de-sac. He works in human resources for a defense contractor, while she’s a (sort-of) interior decorator. After packing the kids away to summer camp, though, they’re not sure how to enjoy their freedom.

Rescue arrives in the form of Natalie and Tim Jones (Gal Gadot and Jon Hamm). A Vanity Fair­-worthy pair who exude sex and adventure, they move into the cul-de-sac and instantly become the most interesting thing about it. It doesn’t take long for the Jones’ tales of travel in exotic lands and effortless cool to hopelessly ensnare the Gaffneys, even though Karen is soon convinced that there’s no way the new neighbors could actually be just a cook and travel writer looking for a quiet place to start a family.

Jeff, a needy type whose job involves mostly listening passively to complaints and handing out stress balls, is instantly smitten by the prospect of being friends with the likes of the darkly dashing and effortlessly cool Tim. Their bromance flowers, complete with bonding rituals over indoor skydiving and a restaurant that specializes in snake venom. Neither endeavor comes close to its slapstick potential. Like much else that happens in this stunningly dull exercise in how not to make a mainstream comedy, about the most entertainment one can hope for in these scenes is imagining what kind of chaos Judd Apatow, or even the Farrelly Brothers, could have conjured up in the same space.

Left as usual for last, the female co-stars stick mostly to the sidelines, except for when Michael LeSieur’s unimaginative and not exactly evolved script calls for Karen to first be jealous and suspicious of the taller Natalie. Later, the two not only try on lingerie together—which at least gives Natalie one of the film’s only decent lines: “Just because I don’t have to moisturize doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings”—but end up making out in order to foil the villainous arms dealer’s plans—because that’s what spies do, apparently.

This kind of retrograde laziness extends, unfortunately, to the impersonal and clunky direction from Greg Mottola, who is far, far away from delivering the kind of thoughtful comedy he’s previously directed in Adventureland and “Arrested Development.” As Mottola showed in the disappointing but less egregious Paul, he’s not exactly the go-to guy for comedies that involve special effects or moving vehicles. That becomes quite clear this time whenever the screenplay calls for an action sequence, which are sloppily handled and not nearly over-the-top enough to garner laughs on their own.

Keeping Up with the Joneses carries with it the aura of the kind of disastrous comedy that usually gets dumped unceremoniously in the tail end of a slow summer. But while an October release for a turkey like this is unusual, that doesn’t make the film itself any less of a waste.

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