Directed by Greg Motolla
Written by Michael Leieur
Starring: Zach Galifinanakis, Isla Fisher, John Hamm, Gal Godot, Matt Walsh and Patton Oswalt
Runtime: 105 minutes
The action/comedy subgenre has been around for a long time and has, as a result, developed its own subgenres. There’s the buddy picture (Bad Boys, the Lethal Weapon series, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), the smart-ass cop who’s really good at their job (Beverly Hills Cop series), the cop/animal or child partner (Any Which Way but Loose/You Can, K-9, Turner and Hooch, Theodore Rex (sorry, Whoopi), Cop and a ½), the zany heist (Ocean’s 11, Heist, Topkapi) and one of the most popular, the idiot-stumbles into/is drawn into-a crazy-dangerous situation, like this year’s Central Intelligence, Keanu, Cops and Robertsons, North by Northwest and now Keeping Up with the Joneses.
The story is incredibly simple: hapless and clueless HR rep Jeff (Zach Galifinakis) is married to Karen (Isla Fisher), and they have two boys (who are away at camp when all the shenanigans go down, so they aren’t in any immediate danger, though they could become orphans very easily). Jeff works for a company with top secret government contracts (and has something to do with rocket science, possibly manufacturing or development of missiles), but he has no idea what they do there, except it’s so secretive that there is no internet on the upper levels so all of the employees use his computer to email, Skype or just check things online during their lunch and Jeff is so unbelievably nice, he lets them. Enter Tim (John Hamm) and Natalie (Gal Godot) Jones. They’re new to the neighborhood (a cul-de-sac where many fellow employees also live) and are absolutely perfect. Karen doesn’t buy it and decides something’s up with the new neighbors, even though Tim and Jeff seem to be becoming friends. It’s quickly revealed that Tim and Natalie are spies (no spoiler, this is in the trailer) and that someone at Jeff’s company has been stealing secrets and microchips from the company in order to sell them on the black market, thereby betraying their country and all of this was done from Jeff’s computer (which is like Grand Central Station, so it’s hard to pin down who it is). Jeff and Karen get deeply involved with the operation and the hijinks that were already high get kicked up higher.
The trouble here is that Michael LeSieur’s screenplay offers nothing new and on top of that very few laughs to offset the unoriginality of the story. Instead, there is a lot of awkward humor; things that are mildly amusing but not enough to laugh at as well as some material that is actually laugh out loud funny (but far too little and much of it is very late in the film). His characters are so standard that we don’t need any explanation regarding them, though that doesn’t stop LeSieur from dropping lots of exposition all over the place. The cast is game and does what it can, but they aren’t given much to work with and the film suffers as a result.
Much of the actually funny stuff comes from well-staged visual and physical humor staged by director Greg Motolla, best known for directing Superbad and Adventureland, both great comedies (each with much better screenplays than this one). Like his stars, Motolla does what he can with the weak screenplay and has some hits that only serve to punctuate his misses.
One of his missteps is that he didn’t seem to be able to control Galifinakis, who is funniest when he’s reined in (notably in his voice work in Puss in Boots and his recurring role on Bob’s Burgers). Here, he seems to be given carte blanch again (as in Masterminds from a month ago) and he’s wildly unfocused without ever breaking his character (though he’s playing a character he’s played many times before with different nuances). It’s not a carbon copy performance, Galifinakis isn’t capable of that, but it is in the same vein that he seldom works out of and he seems like he might just be a little tired of it. He’s going through the motions like he’s paying the bills while waiting for a real challenge.
Fisher, Godot and Hamm, meanwhile, are a lot of fun and seem to be having it. it’s a shame that their performances are watered down by their lack of characters. When Oswalt shows up, he’s a breath of fresh air and the last 20 minutes or so of the picture is very entertaining but it’s too little, too late.
It’s surprising that a little throw-away film like this one got released so late in the year. This is usually the fare that is saved for January or February to cash in on the people who don’t want to see the awards contenders that are held over from the end of the year. Keeping up with the Joneses ends up just being filler in the weeks leading up to the late-year Oscar push, something to go to because there’s not much else and you’re already at the theater, so you might as well see this as anything.