Despite a fun premise, Keeping Up with the Joneses is a mildly entertaining comedy that’s very generic.
Sending their kids off to summer camp, happily married couple Jeff (Zach Galifianakis) and Karen Gaffney (Isla Fisher) have the house all to themselves for the first time in years. As they look for a way to break free of their mundane routines, the two become intrigued by new neighbors who move in across the street – Tim (Jon Hamm) and Natalie Jones (Gal Gadot). Claiming they are ready to settle down in suburbia after a life of traveling the world, Tim and Natalie quickly integrate into the tight-knit cul de sac community, impressing many with their skills and stories.
While Jeff is enamored by the prospect of being friends with people who are so “cool,” Karen becomes suspicious of the Joneses, believing that they’re too perfect and accomplished to call their neighborhood home. One night when the Joneses are out, Jeff and Karen sneak into their neighbors’ house and discover that Tim and Natalie are government spies investigating the aerospace company that Jeff works for. Through a series of events, Jeff and Karen become a part of an espionage plot and have to help the Joneses accomplish their mission before American security is compromised.
The latest film from director Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland), Keeping Up with the Joneses is the filmmaker’s attempt to bring his brand of humor to the tried and true action/comedy genre. Mottola has had a great deal of success crafting films that strike an emotional chord with the audience while also serving up plenty of laughs. Unfortunately, this offering is not nearly as polished as some of his other works. Despite a fun premise, Keeping Up with the Joneses is a mildly entertaining comedy that’s very generic.
One of the biggest letdowns in the movie is the screenplay by Michael LeSieur, which takes way too long to kick into gear. Keeping Up with the Joneses takes its time getting to the spy element, wasting significant portions of the early sections on a mystery subplot in which Jeff and (mainly) Karen try to discover the truth about their neighbors. The problem with this approach is that many in the audience will already be aware of Tim and Natalie’s profession, so the first act is extremely non-engaging and struggles to connect. Additionally, the film does not immediately present a reason for the Gaffneys to be skeptical of their neighbors’ intentions (outside of Karen’s own paranoia), so their actions in the beginning are convenient for the story instead of being natural. LeSieur might have been better served placing the focus on Tim and Natalie trying to blend into middle-class suburbia (and solve a more intriguing mystery), but placing Galifianakis and Fisher front and center does lead to some amusing fish-out-of-water scenarios.
Besides a poor setup, Keeping Up with the Joneses is also hampered by its reluctance to develop any of the ideas it presents. The script toys with some interesting concepts that could have added layers to the film (i.e. Tim hates his job, the Joneses have communication problems in their marriage), but never goes beyond the surface level. Jeff and Tim do get some nice moments together where it looks like a friendship is being formed, but many attempts to flesh out the dynamic between the Gaffneys and the Joneses are hollow. The sentimental beats the movie tries to hit are not very successful, meaning the ultimate arc of the story is unsatisfying. If the first act was more about the Gaffneys bonding with their new neighbors (instead of snooping around), then Keeping Up with the Joneses could have (slightly) tugged at the heartstrings. As it is, the story is very by-the-numbers and doesn’t bring much new to the table.
None of the performances in the main ensemble are exactly groundbreaking, but the standouts are arguably Galifianakis and Hamm. The former may be typecast here as the socially awkward everyman, but the actor is a good fit for the role and gets to display his comedic talents, including some physical bits that are worth a chuckle. As stated above, his scenes with Hamm are somewhat entertaining, giving the movie an odd couple pairing that (at times too on-the-nose) pokes fun at their vast differences. Tim is perhaps the character with the most “depth,” providing Hamm with a variety of material with which to work. He does a good job with the action sequences, and Hamm elevates what’s on the page to make Tim a sincere figure.
Unfortunately, the leading ladies aren’t giving much to do. Gadot is fine as a steely, determined, and no-nonsense spy, but that’s all there is to her character. Like Hamm, Gadot is solid during the set pieces, but nothing here is going to further excite DC fans about her upcoming Wonder Woman standalone movie. Likewise, Fisher’s Karen amounts to little more than the bored suburban mom stock character who gets caught up in an extraordinary situation. If LeSieur and Mottola tried to do more with their characters than make them two-dimensional, they could have had something fun. But since viewers will have trouble caring about the cast, the movie is fairly disposable.
In the end, Keeping Up with the Joneses had the potential to be a solidly entertaining effort, but the script’s shortcomings are too much for it to overcome. It’s an action/comedy that doesn’t offer much of either, plodding along and going through the motions until it reaches its conclusion, lacking the heart and substance that Mottola’s other films have had. Even those moviegoers intrigued by the marketing would probably be better off waiting for home media, since the final product has very little to offer to warrant the full price of admission.
Keeping Up with the Joneses is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 105 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for sexual content, action/violence, and brief strong language.
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