A film review by Craig J. Koban November 5, 2016

KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES jjj

2016, PG-13, 105 mins.

 

Zach Galifianakis as Jeff Gaffney  /  Isla Fisher as Karen Gaffney  /  Gal Gadot as Natalie Jones  /  Jon Hamm as Tim Jones  /  Maribeth Monroe as Meg Craverston  /  Jona Xiao as Stacey Chung  /  Fred Galle as Jack  /  Matt Walsh as Dan Craverston  /  Patton Oswalt as Bruce  /  Kevin Dunn as Carl Pronger  /  

Directed by Greg Mottola  /  Written by Michael LeSieur

I place very few expectations on comedies.  

They simply have to (a) contain an appealing and engaging cast and (b) make me consistently laugh.  Humor is also a highly subjective thing, which makes the job of the film critic all the more tricky.  The new spy action-comedy KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES definitely doesn't reinvent the narrative wheel with its underlining premise, nor does it go for the satiric jugular in terms of attacking the spy movie genre itself and the monotony of middle-upper class suburban life.  On many levels, this film is fairly pedestrian and safe; it's quite reticent when it comes to exploring all of the absurd comic possibilities inherent with its story. 

Having said that, though, KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES has a wonderfully assembled cast of four lead actors that are really hard to dislike that all perform well off of one another.  That, and it's pretty damn funny at the right key moments (even though for every joke and gag that scores a healthy bullseye there's one or two that fall resoundingly flat), which is more than I can frankly say about many mainstream comedies these days.  It could be easily argued that KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES is kind of a qualitative step down for director Greg Mottola, whom previously made the wonderful coming of age comedy ADVENTURELAND and the hysterical SUPERBAD.  To be sure, this new film is arguably the lesser of Mottola's previous offerings, but that's not to say that it's not amusing or entertaining. 

 

 

The film stars Zack Galifianakis as Jeff, a lowly HR rep that thinks he's an awfully lot better at his job than he thinks he is.  His wife Karen (Isla Fisher) runs her own at-home online business rearranging bathrooms for clients, which is about as exciting and stimulating as it sounds.  They live a modest and humdrum life in a cul-de-sac that strangely seems to be for couples far more affluent than they are...unless HR reps and online bathroom decorators pay insanely well.  Anyhoo', Jeff and Karen's painfully ordinary suburban life is given an exciting jolt with the emergence of their new neighbors Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot) and right from the get-go they seem, at least to Karen, suspiciously...perfect.  They look perfect...act perfect...and seem perfectly adept at nearly every task they commit themselves to.  During their first meet-and-greet Tim and Natalie reveal that they've traveled the world and have done all things unimaginably glamorous...at least to Jeff and Karen.  Tim and Natalie are like uber intelligent and sophisticated Ken and Barbie dolls come lovingly to life. 

Jeff seems man-crushingly smitten with the debonair Tim, whereas Karen's spider-sense seems to constantly go off about this mysterious new couple.  Her distrust of the Joneses is set off at a local block BBQ party when Natalie demonstrates a lethal accuracy with darts and Tim is caught snoopy around in Jeff's study.  Of course, Jeff shrugs off his wife's paranoia, mostly because he's genuinely enjoying his bonding with Tim.  Unfortunately, Karen is proven right - during one amusingly wrongheaded infiltration of the Joneses home - that this "perfect" couple are indeed spies that seem to have an unhealthy fixation on studying up on Jeff's place of work and his various employees.  Predictably, the Joneses discover that Jeff and Karen are on to them, so they decide to let them in on their plan to capture a mole at Jeff's employer that may be selling top secret engineering plans to an dangerous arms dealer (revealed in one of the film's genuine surprises).  Wacky espionage hijinks ensue. 

Galifianakis is an on-screen comedian that's capable of being as hysterical as he is grating in films, but here he refreshingly plays a meek, mild mannered, and soft spoken dweeb that's doesn't exist primarily for shameful camera mugging (granted, Jeff is the same sort of sad sack man-child that the actor has played in his sleep before, but he's nevertheless dependably good at it here).  He's paired very well with Fisher, a committed actress that's unusually good at playing subtle and broad physical comedy.  The aforementioned sequence involving Jeff and Karen prowling around inside of the Jones' home (which leads to Karen getting accidentally hit with a tranquilizing dart) shows that Fisher is quite game to make herself look like a fool to get well earned laughs. 

Then, of course, there's Hamm and Gadot, whom are almost distractingly beautiful people when compared to just about anyone else in the film, which makes them particularly well cast as their respective super spies that garners instant hero worship by everyone else in the neighborhood.  Hamm is more known for his multiple award nominated dramatic performance on TV's MAD MEN, but he's actually a comedic secret weapon here as a very funny straight man that never seems to oversell a moment for obvious comic impact.  As a square jawed action hero with a bumbling social vulnerability, Hamm is pretty solid here, as is Gadot, who displays ample fun in playing off of her limitless sexuality to score big laughs.  One noteworthy scene highlights Gadot's aptitude for self-deprecating humor, which occurs when Karen is caught spying on Natalie in a lingerie store.  Natalie swoops in - half naked - out of her change room to confront Karen and intimidate her with her statuesque frame (which hysterically towers over the diminutive Karen), which makes for one socially awkward moment for her mortified prey.  The scene is a riot not only because of its wanton eroticism, but also for the way Gadot shrewdly plays it like a cat that's having her way with a smaller defenseless animal.  Also, we get to see Wonder Woman in under fashions, which is not altogether bad. 

Mottola may indeed be reducing his considerable skill set making a film like KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES, but he deserves credit for somehow making its fairly maudlin and familiar material feel fresh and lively.  That, and he thankfully never allows for the humor in the film to wallow in lowest common denominator gutter/bathroom pratfalls that revolve around disgusting bodily fluids (something that far too many modern comedies are guilty of).  There's an inherent sweetness that permeates the key relationships in KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES: Tim and Natalie are, yes, dexterous and deadly killing machines, but they have hearts beneath their mercilessly cold professional facades.  They also grow to care about Jeff and Karen, and vice versa.  Tim in particular takes a liking to Jeff, mostly because the HR man allows him moments to speak honestly about his misgivings with what he does...without initially revealing what he actually does to him, which he can't do with Natalie.  There's a tenderness to the characters here that's warm and inviting. 

KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES, with all due respect to its talented cast and director, is a comedy that's on pure narrative autopilot from beginning to end (its resemblance to other spy infused comedies as of late like CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE and SPY are obvious).  Parts of me wished that Mottola and company stretched a bit further with the material and dared themselves to proudly segregate themselves from a recent overcrowded genre pack.  Parts of me also think, deep down, that I shouldn't be recommending KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES, but dammit...I will.  The film may be a bit too cuddly for its own good with its premise and rarely takes creative chances, but it made me laugh and I enjoyed the infectious and likeable energy of the performers on display.  The kept everything jubilantly afloat here, which arguably wouldn't have happened with lesser actors just lazily phoning it in. 

 

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