Keeping Up With The Joneses is your garden-variety suburban spy comedy, and while that might not sound “garden-variety,” try acting surprised even once during Greg Mottola’s new comedy. Admittedly, it’s not the most humorless cul-de-sac thriller (without the thrills), it’s just incredibly unmemorable like so many mainstream jokers of late. It’s not as destructively devious as Mr. And Mrs. Smith, nor is it witty enough to exploit squeaky-clean parents who turn into unexpected secret agents. A nice guy plays overly nice, his nosy wife snoops excessively and the new perfect neighbors turn out to be exactly who they aren’t – so, again, it’s just like almost every other espionage comedy you’ve ever seen.
Jeff (Zach Galifianakis) and Karen Gaffney (Isla Fisher) are your average white-picket-fence parents. Their wallets burst at the seams with cheesy pictures, and nothing sounds better than a night full of DVR-ed sitcoms – until the Joneses move in. Tim Jones (Jon Hamm) is a travel blogger holstering an arsenal of upstaging stories, and his wife Natalie (Gal Gadot) is a charitable food blogger who’s as stylish as she is drop-dead gorgeous.
Yet, something doesn’t sit right with Karen, who stalks Natalie to some startling results. It turns out the Joneses are actually agents investigating Jeff’s workplace for a possible security leak, which in-turn puts the Gaffneys in just as much danger. Can the two “families” work together and prevent an international crime?
The difference between Motolla’s earlier works and Keeping Up With The Joneses is in Superbad and Paul (plus Adventureland, most prominently), he cared to craft personalities – not polish plastic prototypes. The Gaffneys are just ripe-enough whackjobs plucked from a tree of equal weirdos, who offer no depth or sincerity.
I know, “sincerity” is a funny word to describe an espionage goof where houses explode, but it’d be nice if most – if not all – comedies could tell a story worth the lame-duck jokes and overdone caricatures. With that level of investment, immaturity can pass as tonal reprise instead of dull obviousness. Without it, audiences are at the mercy of C-grade zingers shot by hollow vessels. Kind of like if the robots on stage at Chuck E. Cheese performed a comedy bit that was all pizza puns? You get exactly what you paid for, mechanically structured and woefully unenthusiastic.
Granted, Galifianakis is funnier here than in last month’s Masterminds, and Jon Hamm is at his dog-gone Hammiest. No matter what situation Hamm finds himself in, he’s always the coolest, suavest, most jealousy-inducing man in the room. He hits the sappy romantics with Gal Gadot just right and is able to play off Galifianakis’ do-gooder with ample comedic chops.
Galifianakis and Isla Fisher struggle in their exaggerated suburbanite lifestyles – one being a Human Resources pushover while the other suffers from housewife boredom – but the duo works better when interacting with their Jones counterparts. Jeff and Tim’s visit to an underground cobra restaurant stands as one of the movie’s funnier meet-ups (Tim tries to extract information from a drunk Jeff), only challenged by Karen and Natalie’s lingerie dressing-room encounter. Motolla’s cast largely works as a whole, when the shackles of humorous conformity can be lifted a bit.
That said, Keeping Up With The Jonses plays everything so disappointingly safe. Momentary action asides rain bullets and kill henchmen while the Gaffneys cower in the corner, and a cameo appearance by one of today’s geek stand-up kings is nothing short of face-recognition laughs. Galifianakis finds himself in yet another role that keeps him cheery, sunny and predictably oblivious to life’s darker side. Never, not once, is there any notion of deviating from norms in Michael LeSieur’s paint-by-numbers screenplay – there’s nothing more to say then you’ve seen this all before, and you’ll see it all again.
In the grand scheme of things, Keeping Up With The Jonses is harmless. That – as expected – is a kiss of death in the comedy world, because you need laughs to become something memorable. Syndicated reruns of such a film result in nothing but background noise to repeat viewers, because there’s no landmark value to admire. Everyone here has proved more memorable in many other situations (including director Greg Mottola), and we’ll soon forget this ever happened as we monitor the almost non-existent pulse of today’s comedy genre as a whole.
There’s probably a depressing Werner Herzog quote applicable here, but I just don’t have the enthusiasm left to find it. Comedies need to be funny again (like, more than two a year), and this sadly isn’t where that trend begins.
Keeping Up With The Jonses isn't exactly the neighbor from hell, but it certainly isn't worth a welcoming party.