Mark Reviews Movies

Keeping Up with the Joneses


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Greg Mottola

Cast: Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot, Matt Walsh, Maribeth Monroe, Patton Oswalt, Kevin Dunn

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, action/violence and brief strong language)

Running Time: 1:41

Release Date: 10/21/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 20, 2016

It's fascinating to see how Keeping Up with the Joneses takes a promising premise and nearly wrecks it with a series of non sequitur gags, only to have the entire thing almost saved by a quartet of performances that are much better than the material they serve. That means there are two ways to watch the movie: Either focus on what the actors have to do, or pay attention to the ways in which they do those things. The first approach almost invariably will lead to frustration. The second at least offers a sense of appreciation for the performers. In case the Irrelevant Rating in Stars above didn't make it obvious, I have leaned more toward the second way of looking at the movie.

The setup is pretty solid: An ordinary couple discovers that their new neighbors are international spies. What's beneath the setup is an intriguing comic hook: The fancy, adventurous neighbors unintentionally help the normal couple to see how boring their lives have become.

Jeff (Zach Galifianakis) and Karen Gaffney (Isla Fisher), the normal couple, live at and on a literal dead end—a fine house on a cul-de-sac in a suburban neighborhood. Their kids are away for the summer at camp, and given the promise of a few months of freedom with the house to themselves, they imagine a variety of exciting locations and ways that could spice up their sex life. The daydreams end in disaster, so they just decide to catch up on one of their routine TV shows.

The spies are Tim (Jon Hamm) and Natalie Jones (Gal Gadot). Their arrival, after blind-buying a house on the block in cash, marks a lot of rumors and jealous admiration from residents of the neighborhood. The couple is as affectionate with each other as each is attractive individually. Tim says he works as a travel writer, and his unique hobbies, such as glass-blowing, are more ambitious and praiseworthy than some of the careers of his neighbors. Natalie is a warm-hearted, humble philanthropist who shows up at the summer block party with a specialty dish that doesn't last for long.

Jeff works in the human resources department of an aerospace company, while Karen works from home as an interior designer. Both are fairly miserable: he on account of the lines of employees with petty conflicts that need resolving and she because her new project to is design a home bathroom that intentionally looks squalid. Jeff develops something of a man-crush on Tim, who takes a suspicious interest in his new pal's dull job, and Karen begins following Natalie around because she, the busybody type of suburban mom, is certain that something is amiss with their new neighbors.

Of course, Karen turns out to be correct, and the plot follows a well-worn routine. It's also a confounding, logic-deprived mess, but if the plot is one's chief concern here, it's possible that someone's missing the point.

The regular couple gets in too deep with the super couple. There's a treasonous conspiracy afoot, and a few action sequences, which are effective enough, pepper what is otherwise a series of jokes. Director Greg Mottola displays a good sense of balancing action and comedy during a chase through and around an abandoned warehouse, as Jeff becomes a frantic heap in the backseat, Karen worries about not having a seatbelt and tries to calm an argument between her sons over the phone, Natalie shows off her shooting skills, and Tim responds to it all like a frustrated father on a road trip that has gone on for too long.

The sequence is a microcosm of the way these characters and actors play off each other. The fact that the scene works is mostly a testament to the actors' distinct, respective comic approaches. The same goes, for the most part, with the rest of the movie.

Galifianakis is once again the odd man way out there. Jeff is the kind of guy whose general decency prevents him from seeing even the most obvious of suspicious behavior in people and whose general awkwardness turns him into a magnet for uncomfortable moments (For some reason, screenwriter Michael LeSieur also makes the character the kind of guy who drops casually racist observations and jokes because he doesn't know any better).

Hamm's dry delivery of mounting frustration serves as a good counterbalance to Galifianakis' shenanigans, and Gadot is amusing simply because she plays Natalie as the one character who doesn't find the humor in any of this. The standout is Fisher, who's a hoot as the repressed and paranoid Karen. Fisher has a knack for physical comedy, and her attempts to stalk Natalie or to spy on the neighbors walk a fine line between believable foolishness and absurd buffoonery.

The gags themselves are in the modern vein of mixing improvisation with situations that attempt to one-up the characters within them (Take a scene in a clandestine Chinese restaurant, which hinges on the still-moving decapitated head of poisonous snake, or an interrogation scene that weirdly uses the threat of torture as the comic undercurrent). Keeping Up with the Joneses, then, also continues the trend of comedies with straightforward and clever-enough setups that find strange ways of undermining the promise that's inherent to the material. It's as if good enough simply isn't good enough anymore.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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