Keeping Up with the Joneses

Domestic malaise mixed with espionage begets a modest star-studded comedy that plays out exactly as expected.
Keeping Up with the Joneses

Surreptitiously, subtly spying on those living in close proximity while remaining convinced that the grass is always greener: if big and small screen depictions of neighbourly behaviour are to be believed, such is suburban life. Keeping Up with the Joneses thoroughly embraces the cliché, taking its title from the idiom describing one’s need to meet the social standards set by those around them, and basing its story upon espionage in a cul-de-sac. The latter becomes literal in several ways.

When Tim (Jon Hamm, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp) and Natalie Jones (Gal Gadot, Criminal) move to the Atlanta street already inhabited by Jeff (Zach Galifianakis, Masterminds) and Karen Gaffney (Isla Fisher, Grimsby), everyone starts talking: they’re attractive, glamorous and live high-flying lives, him as a travel writer and her as a charity-minded social media consultant. Indeed, freelance interior designer Karen is convinced that something else is afoot, while human resources counsellor Jeff is just happy to make new friends outside of his street and his aerospace defense company — until his wife’s suspicions are proven accurate. 

Three decades ago, Keeping Up with the Joneses would’ve been common multiplex fare: star-studded, undemanding, and using an easy premise that plunges average folks into the closest approximation of a fantasy world as they can get while still remaining grounded in everyday reality. Alas, much of the film’s struggles today stem from these aspects — or how broad they each are, both individually and combined. It's the "see what sticks" type of mainstream movie-making, predicated upon little more than throwing obvious elements together, and geared towards the widest appeal and lowest denominator in every category. And while that doesn’t make Keeping Up with the Joneses a bad effort, it doesn’t do much to lift it beyond overwhelming ordinary territory. 

Accordingly, Greg Mottola (TV’s Clear History)-directed, Michael LeSieur (The Maiden Heist)-written feature plays out exactly as expected; telegraphing viewer reactions to the Gaffneys’ domestic malaise, the Jones’ head-turning ways, the gags stemming from the former and the explosions often occurring around the latter isn’t difficult to do while watching. Thanks to director of photography Andrew Dunn (Bridget Jones's Baby), it always looks suitably slick and polished, offering not just the movie dream of espionage but of suburban life as well. And, thanks to editor David Rennie (22 Jump Street), it bustles by at a busy-enough pace. However, from its surface-level dissection of supposed marital bliss to its cartoonish comedy antics, Keeping Up with the Joneses never aims beyond the mild-mannered sitcom niche it has happily carved out for itself.

Based on the underlying idea and the accompanying wacky vibe that becomes evident from the movie’s opening scene, that’s hardly surprising; based on the talent involved, it’s less easy to blankly grin and bear. The affable combination of insight and amusement Mottola demonstrated with Superbad and Adventureland is absent, and the cast mostly coast through their parts — Hamm’s winning ability to appear both suave and somewhat silly at the same time, as a growing comedy resume featuring everything from 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation to Archer and Toast of London, the clear exception. Still, the modest film manages to raise enough modest laughs to pass the time, just. Perhaps Keeping Up with the Joneses simply suffers from its titular state itself; alas, with efforts of this ilk increasingly rare in superhero-saturated cinemas, the standard it’s trying to meet is all-too-low and dated.

Rating: 2 ½ stars out of 5

Keeping Up with the Joneses
Director: Greg Mottola
USA, 2016, 105 mins

Release date: 20 October
Distributor: Fox
Rated: M

Sarah Ward

Friday 28 October, 2016

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay