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May 19, 2017

Keeping Up with the Joneses

by Franz Patrick


Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

The silly action-comedy “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” written by Michael LeSieur and directed by Greg Mottola, has a strategy all too apparent when it comes to comedies these days: It relies solely on the charisma of its four leads to carry the audience from beginning to end. It is a lazy approach, almost offensive, and I wished that more effort were put into the script because the leads try the best they can to work with subpar material. The picture offers a few chuckles—not because the material is funny but because the performers commit so much that at times they manage to elevate deadly dull lines toward something marginally amusing—but this is not enough to warrant a recommendation.

Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher play Jeff and Karen, a married couple living in the suburbs whose love life has lost its spark. Even when their kids are away in summer camp, they’d rather watch television than go out and experience something new for a change. When a worldly, highly attractive, polished couple, Tim and Natalie (Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot), move next door, expectedly, Jeff and Karen gravitate toward them since the new neighbors appear to be exciting people. The Joneses, as it turns out, are government operatives and their move to the sleepy suburbs is merely a cover to track and prevent an illicit exchange.

For an action-comedy, it is quite odd that there is only one extended action sequence. Predictably, it involves a car and flying bullets but I found some joy in a highly familiar template. The material works best when Fisher, Gadot, Hamm, and Galifianakis are in the same room—the more cramped, the better. There is an innately amusing element in putting four big personalities in a limited space. However, looking closely into this sequence, notice it is mostly composed of reaction shots done in a studio. Thus, we never fully believe that any of the characters are in danger despite the rain of bullets and the vehicle moving a hundred miles per hour—backwards.

There is one fresh idea that I thought the writers should have taken farther than they did. Within the first fifteen minutes, Karen suspects that there is something off about their new neighbors. For a while, the script gives the impression that the characters—or at least one character—will be smarter than those we’ve encountered in similar movies. Fisher stands out among the four because I believed that she can be both intelligent and silly—a challenging line to straddle that only a few performers can pull off convincingly. So, it is quite disappointing that once the Joneses’ true motivations are revealed, the most promising character proves to be ordinary. Notice she is much quieter post-reveal, almost fading into the background.

“Keeping Up with the Joneses” plays it too safe when it actually needs to take risks because successful action-comedies are all about taking chances, whether it be in terms of story, character development, the wild situations the protagonists end up finding themselves in. Clearly made for mass public consumption, perhaps a movie like this might have done well in the late 1990s, but these days it is substandard. It is too dilute to be palatable.

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