‘Keeping Up with the Joneses’
Director: Greg Mottola
Stars: Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher
2 (out of 5) Globes
There’s one funny joke in “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” and it’s technically a repeat. After a film-long, Harry Lime-ish build-up in which we hear all about the big bad guy but don’t see him, we finally learn that he’s played by Patton Oswalt. That’s not the funny part, which is no slight on Mr. Oswalt. The funny part is that his name is “Bruce Springstine” (pronounced exactly like “Springsteen”). It’s not a great joke, but it’s far loopier than the stale jabs at suburban America and stiff gunplay that tend to go around here. And it’s the only way you can tell this is a film by Greg Mottola. The director’s CV includes a ’90s indie classic (“The Daytrippers”), a rewatchable dramedy (“Adventureland”) and “Superbad.” It also includes the wan “Paul,” whose best bit also involved a weird name: At the end it was revealed the driven fed played by Jason Bateman was called “Lorenzo Zoil.”
The step-down in silly names is sadly indicative of how little care went into “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” the kind of comedy that arrogantly assumes things that sound funny in theory will automatically be in practice. It’s all hand-me-down, starting with the umpteenth time Galifianakis has played a dumb-yet-sweet lug, and the second time in the last month, after “Masterminds.” This round he’s Jeff Gaffney, a human resources monkey who just happens to work for a tech giant specializing in super-hush-hush electronics. Trapped in a bland, “Good Wife”-binging marriage to the disproportionately attractive Isla Fisher, he’s bowled over when their new neighbors show up looking like Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot. But they’re not, as they say, respectively, a travel journo and a social media expert. They’re spies, and who knows who for, and they want to use Jeff’s low standing at his company for what we assume is nefarious purposes.
The logline is Woody Allen’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery” crossed with “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” with Fisher’s Karen making like Diane Keaton, suspecting their neighbors early into their tenure and embarking on some awkward, clumsy snooping. Fisher is game, and so is Gadot; normally coming off like a mannequin sprinkled with magic pixie dust, she surprises with some deadpan comic chops — sometimes. Other times she doesn’t, as though she was a robot with a switch labeled “humor.” Hamm has fun, too, and, come to think of it, so does Galifianakis.
Hell, everyone’s having a blast. It’s the material that’s weak, the jokes they’ve been hired to deliver that stink. Everyone looks like they’re having a good time, but the reality is the best Galifianakis can muster is pronouncing “jalapeno” with a hard J. No one, from script to director to cast, can get energized by the potential comedic goldmine (or something thereabouts) of dangerous desires bubbling up under the gizmo-friendly world of suburbia. And like most films blending action and comedy, it assumes the two genres won’t cancel each other out, as they do far more often than not. It’s a premise and a cast and nothing more; it should have never been more than a poster.