Superbad director Greg Mottola gives us this American action-comedy starring Zach Galifianakis, Jon Hamm, Isla Fisher and Gal Gadot about a suburban couple whose lives are turned upside down when they suspect their new neighbours might be spies.
The director of Keeping Up With The Joneses, Greg Mottola, made his name with the universally-known Superbad (2007) before progressing onto the arguably superior Adventureland (2009). The release of the latter film looked like an announcement of a distinctive presence in the industry, and delivered career-best performances from its stars as well as perfectly juggling a myriad supporting cast. From there Mottola’s career trajectory somehow stalled, with his only offerings being the instantly forgettable Pegg/Frost vehicle Paul and the made-for-TV Clear History. So the questions that surround this film are whether Mottola peaked at the end of the last decade, and if this film is simply another pay cheque.
The film begins in a Hollywood-brand hateful version of Suburbia that we’ve seen many times before, where, without realising it, Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher have given up on being real people with individual personalities. It takes the arrival of Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot as their impossibly alluring and sophisticated new neighbours to bring some excitement to the still life of the neighbourhood, and mild capers ensue as the preening pair turn out to be spies, inexplicably interested in Galifianakis’ exceedingly uninteresting job as a human resources buffoon at an Aerospace company.
The central cast are certainly an attractive group. Mad Men star Hamm and Wonder Woman herself, Gadot, are absurdly beautiful and ooze smug success. Former Home and Away poster girl Fisher and The Hangover funny man Galifianakis (thinner than you’ve ever seen him before, which to some extent removes his main selling point) enjoy reams of screen time. Unlike Mottola’s Superbad and Adventureland, which leaned so heavily on the supporting cast, there is none to speak of here, so our four star turns are required to do all the heavy lifting if this is going to work. And how do they do? Not too bad actually.
The deeply domesticated main pair are likeable enough, although fans of The Hangover may be disappointed; this role doesn’t grant Galifianakis the same comedic license he had in that film, but his character is at least easier to identify with. Fisher’s usual overblown, dead-eyed performance, as seen in Wedding Crashers and Confessions of a Shopaholic, is made a whole lot more palatable by simply dialling down the intensity by 10%. She can take credit for some of the film’s best gags, and there is tangible warmth in the depiction of her relationship with Galifianakis, supplying an emotional core that’s unusual in this genre.
Elsewhere results are mixed. Hamm, turning up as a James Bond-infused Don Draper, almost steals the show, offering some of the biggest laughs and a likeable character. Gadot, on the other hand, delivers her lines in jarring pidgin English and is harder to warm to than the other three leads. There is little chemistry between the two, despite having ridiculous good looks in common, which limits their emotional and comic impact.
When the inevitable action sequences arrive you get a sense that Mottola has been forced out of his comfort zone, with the whole affair appearing stagey and overlong. Though the hundred-minute running time doesn’t outstay its welcome, the film would surely have benefited from making these sequences somewhat more concise. But on the flipside, barring a scene where Galifianakis unsuccessfully attempts to open a bottle of beer with his bare hands, it’s great relief to report that the film is absent of the gross-out humour that so often proliferates modern movies of this type.
Keeping Up With The Joneses generally succeeds in what it probably sets out to achieve, being a fairly funny, fairly engaging, but always lightweight comedy. In his best films Mottola mastered the art of warm, believable character interaction, so it’s no surprise that, barring the cold Gadot, he’s managed it again here. It’s a shame then that the direction of this once-promising director’s career seems far less hopeful. This is clearly a big step down from the likes of Superbad and Adventureland, with no distinctive flourish or reason to recall anything about the film after the end credits have rolled. An individual as talented as Mottola should surely be dedicating his time to something more ambitious than Keeping Up With The Joneses.
How much you enjoy this film depends very much on your level of expectation. Our best advice is to approach the cinema expecting a forgettable, throw-away comedy; that way you might be pleasantly surprised. Anything else would be pretty risky.
Words by Luke Ostler & Simon Evans
Directed by: Greg Mottola
Written by: Michael LeSieur
Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Jon Hamm, Isla Fisher, Gal Gadot
Released: 2016 / Genre: Action-Comedy / Country: USA / IMDB