KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES: Plodding & Predictable Spy Next Door Comedy

The spy-next-door genre seems to be showing its age. The idea of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances fueled dozens of effective Hitchcock movies, several of them classics. There’s no reason, really, why it shouldn’t work as well now. But Hollywood seems pathetically unable to get anywhere with ordinary people caught up in espionage capers these days. The latest fizzle is Keeping Up With the Joneses, directed by Greg Mottola, who scored big time with a sci-fi take on similar material in Paul.

Zack Galifianakis and Isla Fisher play Jeff and Karen Gaffney, an almost self-consciously ordinary suburban couple whose children are conveniently away at camp for the summer. After a quick fantasy glimpse of the wild sex they should be spending the summer having with the kids away, the two settle down to watch DVRs of The Good Wife. The humdrum of their lives (he’s a human resources counselor at a high-tech defense contractor, she’s a freelance home design consultant) is interrupted by the arrival of new neighbors – the Joneses.

Get to the Action, Already

Despite a prologue that loudly announces the mayhem to come, the movie takes far too long establishing the mundanity of the Gaffney’s lives before getting down to business for real. The trailers and posters have already told us spies are coming, so let’s get down to it, already. The movie does begin to develop a pulse once the titular Joneses show up, and God only knows that Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot, the big screen’s new Wonder Woman, would tend to stand out anywhere.

As Tim (seriously? Tim?) Jones, Hamm is the living embodiment of man-crush material. Tall, dark and handsome, rakishly unshaven (the growing necessity of razor wranglers on modern sets will be the subject of a separate column), and cool but somehow approachable, he personifies the guy that guys would want to be friends with.

KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES: Plodding & Predictable Spy Next Door Comedy
source: 20th Century Fox

Hamm also manages the not-inconsiderable feat of not looking instantly inadequate next to the Israeli-born Gadot. To say that the 5’10 Gadot is exotic would be a ridiculous understatement – she glides across the screen like an elegant dominatrix, which makes her natural sense of comic timing all the more surprising.

We’re not surprised that the Joneses are experts at spycraft, weapons and all that sort of stuff. What they’re not good at is blending in at the typical suburban barbecue. Keeping Up With the Joneses milks some humor out of the incongruities, but by and large this exercise simply isn’t funny.

The New, Though Not Necessarily Improved, Galifianakis

Why? It’s a good question. Galifianakis, noticeably slimmed down in this latest movie, isn’t playing his trademark character: the off-the-wall, stoner Lou Costello mis-reconstructed by a Star Trek transporter malfunction. He did that with progressively diminishing wit in The Hangover movies, and perhaps convinced himself there was a limited future in it.

This is a much more benign character, though it’s still a satire on a corporate drone who lives in the suburbs, something that could as easily have been played by Seth Rogen. The question is whether Galifianakis has any idea of what middle America is actually all about, and the answer appears to be no.

KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES: Plodding & Predictable Spy Next Door Comedy
source: 20th Century Fox

Hamm’s character, oddly, is the more engaging. Tim Jones, who reminded this critic more of Napoleon Solo than James Bond, is clearly good at what he does, but is sick of doing it, and his efforts to befriend Jeff, first just for part of the job, become more sincere. Tim needs a friend in the real world. The audience is going to be tempted to ask itself why this material isn’t working better.

The Evil Odor of Improvisation

One is strongly tempted to suspect that director and cast have all given into the demon of improvisation that has dogged so many Hollywood comedies in recent years. Keeping Up With the Joneses is way too plot-heavy for there not to have been a script – although a shocking number of recent comedies have been greenlit without them.

But the unmistakable, evil odor of improvised dialogue, even entire scenes, hangs over the movie like an under-maintained men’s room at a bowling alley. Gadot manages a few good lines, generally revolving around her preternatural good looks (“Just because I don’t need to moisturize doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings”), but overall the movie is shockingly devoid of punchlines.

An Action Comedy Has to Deliver Laughs or Action…Doesn’t It?

Needless to say, if an action comedy can’t deliver on the comedy, then it has to deliver on the action. Mottola’s Paul was punctuated with some well-executed action, but he scores far lower on the adrenaline scale here. His stunt coordinator on Paul was Darrin Prescott, one of the go-to action maestros in the business, whose recent credits include such bone-crunchers as Captain America: Civil War, John Wick, and Drive.

Steve Ritzi, who handled stunt coordination here, has some heavy-hitters on his resumé, including G.I. Joe: Retaliation and 12 Years a Slave. Yet in the current film, he has nonetheless produced more pedestrian results. Keeping Up With the Joneses features a couple of action set pieces, notably a loud but unimaginative car and motorcycle chase which would have seemed unimaginative by the late ’60s standard in a Bond movie. Ironically, this was also the Achilles’ Heel of this summer’s Central Intelligence, which was for the most part much better.

KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES: Plodding & Predictable Spy Next Door Comedy
source: 20th Century Fox

It has to be noted that this is, to be charitable, well-trod territory, going back to Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, Saboteur, two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much and the incomparable North by Northwest, and later comedies like the Colin Higgins scripted Silver Streak and the Higgins scripted and directed Foul Play, The Pacifier and The Spy Next Door. If Keeping Up With the Joneses succeeds on any level, it’s in finding a relatively logical reason for getting the Gaffneys involved in all this cloak and dagger, and in building more interesting spy characters than typical in this type of material.

The very talented Isla Fisher is sadly underused, other than getting equal screen time with Gal Gadot in lingerie. But that alone sort of tells you where this movie’s head is at. The lack of star chemistry is surprising, particularly from this director. The novelty of the Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot characters is sadly squandered in the film.

Conclusion

It’s probably premature to ring the death knell for the action comedy espionage genre. Central Intelligence was surprisingly entertaining, due in large part to a witty performance by Dwayne Johnson and good on-screen chemistry with Kevin Hart. Jackie Chan‘s done what seems like dozens of these, all the more entertaining because the action sequences are so dazzling.

Keeping Up With the Joneses might have been improved by not letting the inmates take over the asylum with unnecessary improvised sequences, shifting the focus to the Hamm and Gadot characters and with better action sequences. But lacking these elements, and without a fresh approach, the film settles for product placement and the pedestrian, perhaps under the delusion that pedestrian is an equivalent for tried and true. It isn’t.

This isn’t comfortingly familiar; it’s paint by numbers without pacing. Plodding, predictable and thoroughly routine, Keeping Up With the Joneses is an action comedy that’s neither particularly exciting nor funny. This time, at least, there’s no scene after the end credits, which might help a little.

What do you think? Has the spy next door genre simply run out gas, or run out of writing?

Keeping Up With the Joneses is already playing in the United States and the United Kingdom. Find international release dates here.

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