'Keeping Up with the Joneses Can't Keep Up': Listless Action Comedy Struggles for Laughs

A suburban couple becomes embroiled in a half-baked international threat in Keeping Up with the Joneses, a movie you're destined to confuse with 2010's Date Night, if you remember it at all, opening Friday in wide release.

Zack Galifianakis and Isla Fisher are Jeff and Karen Gaffney, cul-de-sac dwellers and parents of two, whose spiceless love life and boring, generic jobs (HR, interior design) are portrayed as symptoms of something indelibly suburban. So, too, perhaps, are Galifianakis' and Fisher's subdued performances, dialed back from the splashy character roles for which they're best known (The Hangover, Wedding Crashers). No, there's not much life in the burbs, and certainly not in this one, home to employees of a big aerospace firm, MBI. Director Greg Mottola (Superbad) is clear on that score, though it's an observation without much bite or purpose; the film is hardly an attack or, heaven forfend, a commentary on suburban life. If anything it's a punch line, a covalence meant to equate the desperate accumulation of material goods in pursuit of one's neighbors and the literal keeping pace with undercover spies, who happen to be code-named Tim and Natalie Jones. Get it?????

One summer morning, the tall, sexy, interesting Tim and Natalie (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot) move into the cul-de-sac and invigorate the local gossip circles. But despite the neighborly cookies and BBQs, Karen Gaffney intuits that this "travel writer" and "food blogger" are much more than they let on. How can they afford this pricey home and multiple Mercedes-Benzes, for example? Turns out Tim and Natalie are CIA operatives, sent to root out an MBI insider smuggling computer chips to an international arms dealer.

"We spent years undercover [in Europe, Asia, etc.] and were never caught," Natalie Jones exclaims in one unmemorable diner scene, "but we couldn't last two weeks in the suburbs." Hee-haw.

The Israeli model-actress Gal Gadot is of course one of Hollywood's "It" girls right now, having already appeared in Triple 9 and Batman V Superman in 2016 and on the precipice of major stardom with her ongoing appearances as Wonder Woman in the DC film universe. (Gadot, incidentally, was also in Date Night.) She's more or less a stand-in for Angelina Jolie from the much better 2005 film Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and is a credible undercover spy. Hamm, less so. His Mercedes-Benz connection — he does the voice-overs in the commercials — is perhaps his strongest credential for the role. And the constant presence of the cars invites conspiracy theories about the Mad Men star's casting.

The script's jokes are variations on stupid, easy suburban tropes. There's a lot of bland sex stuff — one fantasy scenario is pretty funny — and the frequent juxtaposition of the supposedly dumpy Gaffneys (one of whom is Isla Fisher) and the chic and cosmopolitan Joneses. In a car chase, which represents the the movie's only action sequences, Karen explains to her sons, off at summer camp, by phone how to break and share a cookie.

Something about this whole exercise just seems tired and rote. The script lacks the improvisational riffing of most comedies in vogue and the criminal operation at the movie's center is not only undeveloped but beyond the pale. When the smuggler is identified, Jeff elicits a confession — his years in human resources make him a "great listener" — and Jeff and Karen assume the roles of smuggler and accomplice to aid their new spy pals. The plot, in general, is better left unscrutinized.

Galifianakis is always a comedic draw, and it's not like there's anything abhorrent here. It's just so blasé. Don't expect to walk away from Keeping Up with the Jones with anything other than the satisfaction of having killed some time.

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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