In your 20s, it might seem like a living death, but once you start getting a little older (and softer, and sleepier), the suburbs start to look, well, kind of attractive. Who needs high crime rates and $13 cocktails? You’ve got nothing to prove anymore. The same—we assume for the purposes of this metaphor, anyway—applies to easy gigs in Hollywood comedies, where the closest thing to an edgy joke is some year-old crack about Caitlyn Jenner and you can be back at your hotel by 7 every night.
That’s a perfectly plausible explanation for the presence of Jon Hamm, Zach Galifianakis, Gal Gadot, and Isla Fisher in Keeping Up With The Joneses, a perfectly average Hollywood comedy designed to play to perfectly average audiences with a perfectly average fantasy of living a double life in the exciting world of international espionage, at least until the kids come back from camp. It’s a fantasy that’s been popping up in comic farces such as this one since at least the ’70s, and the standard template appears here basically unchanged, just with a few topical pop-culture references tossed in here and there.
Galifianakis, smiling wanly like he’s on week eight of a gluten-free diet, stars as Jeff Gaffney, an amiable doofus who works in HR at a weapons manufacturer in suburban Atlanta and has no idea what really goes on at the company on a day-to-day basis. Because of his irrelevance, Jeff is the only one that is allowed to have the internet on his work computer, a plot point that, like most in this movie, doesn’t hold up to even the most surface scrutiny. But it makes him a valuable mark, which helps explain why his improbably handsome and accomplished new neighbor Tim Jones (Jon Hamm, displaying the patience of a father submitting to a game of dress-up), who is obviously a spy, takes him out and gets him drunk one afternoon.
Jeff might not suspect anything is wrong with the Joneses, but his wife Karen (Isla Fisher, the only member of the main cast who appears to be trying) knows instinctively that people this sophisticated and good looking don’t live in cul-de-sacs. So she follows Tim’s wife Natalie (Gal Gadot, charismatic in a very limited role) around town in big black sunglasses and a floppy hat in one of the film’s few effective comedic sequences. The fun of watching Fisher do an exaggerated pantomime of sneaking around is soon deflated, though, in a dressing-room scene that, even as we speak, is being marketed as fun and naughty—Gal Gadot and Isla Fisher in their underwear? Together?!—when it’s really just kind of manufactured and lame. Soon, the Gaffneys blow the Jones’ cover, a gunfight ensues, danger is flirted with, feeble sex jokes are made, you know the rest.
And maybe it’s too much to ask for a film like Keeping Up With The Joneses, designed as date-night fare for people who don’t decide what movie they’re going to see before they go to the theater, to challenge its audience. Or to have an airtight story, which this film most definitely does not. But laughs aren’t too much to ask, and when your movie has about a 1:1 ratio of product placement to truly funny jokes, that’s difficult to defend. Director Greg Mottola deserves some credit for trying to give the film a little bit of cinematic flair, something that’s lacking in many Hollywood comedies these days. But Mottola also directed Superbad and Adventureland, so he’s proven that he can do better than just a good effort. Hopefully he, and everyone else involved with this film, tries harder next time.