We have to handle Keeping Up with the Joneses carefully, because it’s something of an antique. Except for a couple of jokes about waterboarding and Siri, we’re convinced that the script must have been hanging around since at least 1986. This film looks as if someone walked into an office at Fox and pitched ‘The Burbs meets The In-Laws‘ a long time ago, and they literally never looked back.
At the start of the film, Jeff Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis) and his wife Karen (Isla Fisher) fretfully send their two kids off to summer camp. Jeff is the HR manager for a defense contractor, and Karen is an unhappy interior designer, and frankly they don’t have many ideas about what to do with their free time. So the monotony is nicely broken by the arrival of enigmatic new neighbors, the Joneses, in their quiet cul-de-sac.
Tim (Jon Hamm) is a travel writer and Natalie (Gal Gadot) is a social media consultant, and while they’re warmly welcomed by Jeff and their other neighbors, Karen is convinced that something is off about this perfect couple. But the Gaffneys get in too deep when they discover that the Joneses are actually secret agents, trying to bust an arms deal between a mole in Tim’s workplace and an international criminal known only as (and this is seriously the name they gave the bad guy in a 2016 film), the Scorpion.
Keeping Up with the Joneses isn’t a bad movie; it’s just a resoundingly mediocre one. It was originally set out to come out in April this year when it would have at least pre-dated the Dwayne Johnson-Kevin Hart vehicle Central Intelligence, a similar but funnier action-comedy. Even the tagline for Central Intelligence – “To save the world, it takes a little Hart and a big Johnson” – is funnier than anything in this film.
That shouldn’t be the case, given the cast that assembled to take part in this film. As with the big Johnson-little Hart contrast, the closest the film comes to lighting a spark is in bringing the contrast between Hamm and Galifianakis to the forefront. Fans of Between Two Ferns might hope for a lot more, but while Galifianakis is in nice-but-dim mode here, and Hamm plays the Bond figure handsomely, neither of them are playing to their evident comic strengths.
It’s the same for the two leading ladies. Fisher is a small highlight as an uptight mother overreacting even to the most extreme situations, in much the same way as Rose Byrne subverts the spousal stereotype in the Neighbors films, but outside of some expert pratfalls, this isn’t worthy of her. While the other three leads have all proven their chops in other comedies, Gadot is also poorly served by the material in her first comedic role. Some reviews have unfairly suggested that she’s the problem, but let’s not forget that even Batman v Superman (another film that wasn’t big on laughs) gave her more of a showcase for her comic timing than this does.
The other person who can do a lot better than this is director Greg Mottola, who has a good track record on comedies like Adventureland, Superbad, and Paul. This is by far the broadest and most mainstream comedy he’s ever made, and also the least funny. It’s so dated, it feels as if Fox spent 30 years waiting for Chevy Chase and/or Burt Reynolds to say yes to Michael LeSieur’s script, and then gave up on them and made it anyway.
For example, there’s a totally sincere moment in which a car with wing doors is seen to be the height of coolness, and the more comical stuff includes such hot button cultural references as British people having bad teeth.
In the particular role of a villain, there’s a cameo by one of our favourite comedians, who livens up the laughless action whenever he’s on screen, but only after that character finally shows up for a perfunctory showdown and there’s no self-awareness at all about how slap-dash the villain is on the page. As we’ve said, none of this makes it terrible, and you may find it fairly watchable on television in a few years’ time. It just makes for a formulaic and unremarkable film in theaters.
To conclude, it’s been 25 years since James Cameron re-framed James Bond in suburbia in True Lies. Now, we have a film that rehashes a similar set-up but plays it straight down the middle, raising only a couple of good laughs when that aforementioned cameo comes around, and unforgivably squanders the rest of its cast. Keeping Up with the Joneses doesn’t even have a bit where a terrorist gets fired from a helicopter on a missile, through a building and into another helicopter full of other terrorists. You decide which film you would rather watch.