When is a superspy not a superspy? When they’re a bad spy.
Greg Mottola’s latest directorial effort, “Keeping up with the Joneses,” offers a well-worn premise – the folks next door are not remotely who they appear to be. In this case, the couple next door are the Joneses, Natalie (Gal Gadot) and Tim (Jon Hamm). While the Joneses want to seem like normal, regular, folks, they’re actually superspies who are now living on a cul-de-sac to do… something. If I explained it all, not only would it fail to make good sense but it could hurt one’s enjoyment of the movie.
The Joneses are generally acting creepy and weird around their new neighbors, the Gaffneys, Karen (Isla Fisher) and Jeff (Zach Galifianakis). It is here, and so early on, that the movie goes off the rails.
Again, the Joneses are superspies, they are clearly the best of the best, the movie sets them up as the best of the best. Except that they’re awful at their job and obvious in how they go about it and repeatedly get caught or are on the verge of getting caught. This gets so terribly bad that “Keeping up with the Joneses” actually has Natalie and Tim discuss how poor a job they’re doing.
But, they’re still the best. They are the best because the movies tells us that they’re the best. It shows us something completely different, but it tells us that they’re the best. No one could possibly suspect them to be spies… except work-from-home interior designer Karen. Over the course of the movie, Jeff and Karen get sucked into the life of Natalie and Tim, both the lie part of it and the truth (or maybe what the Joneses want to be the truth).
Without getting too heavily invested in elements of the nonsensical plot – Jeff works in HR for a company that does something secret, but Jeff doesn’t know what because he doesn’t have clearance. The Joneses are somehow involved or want to be involved and are using the Gaffneys to get involved.
The goal is to mix humor with action and come up with a double fish out of water story (both the Joneses with suburban life and Gaffneys with the spy world). The problem is that the jokes aren’t funny, the action isn’t particularly good, and the audience knows exactly where the whole thing is headed from the beginning. The only reason it takes as long as it does to uncover the Joneses’ plan is because Jeff is an oblivious fool.
Galifianakis isn’t stretching himself by any means here, playing the exact sort of dummy-with-a-heart-of-gold that he has given us repeatedly. The material doesn’t offer him anything slightly different to do with the character either. Fisher is engaging, but is relegated to having many of her jokes revolve around spicing up her sex life, and we have already touched on Hamm and Gadot being superspies who are terrible at their job.
“Keeping up with the Joneses” even features awful scenes with Natalie using her sexuality to make Karen distinctly uncomfortable. A PG-13 film, these moments feel more like pandering to an audience teenage boys than they do germane to the plot or part of an exploration of the characters. They come off as silly for their inclusion, not for any comedic flare they add to the movie.
And, if you’re wondering why the Gaffneys are living a lovely, stereotypical life in suburbia but there has been no mention of their kids, conveniently, the children are away at summer camp for the entirety of the movie. Naturally, the kids only manage to call when the timing is as bad as it could possible be.
“Keeping up with the Joneses” may want to tell an exciting, new, tale of superspies in the suburbs but instead features a mundane story with well trod jokes. It has four likable stars up front, and a great cast of supporting players, but each and every one of them is penned in by the dull humor and paint-by-numbers plot.
photo credit: 20th Century Fox