George Lucas, the brains behind the “Star Wars” franchise, purportedly hung up a release date for “The Phantom Menace” while filming. No matter what, he told his cast and crew, the film would be released on a specific date. It can’t be much of a surprise that “The Phantom Menace” lacked the nuance and heart that defined the earlier films, since Lucas’s team didn’t have the freedom to think through the film before its release.
That same predetermination, and its accompanying general disregard for the craft of filmmaking for profit’s sake, is vividly on display in “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” a spy action comedy from 20th Century Fox and the latest project from “Adventureland” and “Superbad” director Greg Mottola.
Jeff Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis, “Birdman”), a nerdy and relatively socially inept HR manager at a large industrial facility in suburban Atlanta, and his wife, Karen (Isla Fisher, “The Great Gatsby”), become caught up in an espionage plot when they discover their new neighbors are government agents. The smooth, suave and stylish neighbors, Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm, “Mad Men,” and Gal Gadot, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”), charm everyone around them, who all work for the same company with Gaffney, into revealing critical secrets.
The film, miserable as it is, does deserve some credit. An exhaustive list of its attributes include: a decent (but very brief) title credits sequence, a sly Nigerian prince reference, three “Veep” cast members, a Busby Berkeley-inspired indoor skydiving sequence and two good songs (one by Blitzen Trapper, another by Anderson .Paak). That is, unfortunately, the end of the list.
The film certainly defies expectations to the extent that I expected to see an action comedy. Rather, we are left with a film constructed from the tropes left behind by other superior films. There is one action sequence and fewer laughs. The predecessors of “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” films like last year’s brilliant “Spy,” “The Other Guys,” and even “Date Night,” are funnier while being more drastic and creative in throwing average Joes into high-stakes action stories. They are simply more entertaining.
But “Keeping Up with the Joneses” is nothing more than a failure. The film is beyond predictable, wearing its foreshadowing on its sleeve. The score, written by Jake Monaco (“Dinotrux”), seems to be stolen from other action comedies. The story is dull, using a slow reveal of facts (which, by the way, could be deduced by watching the trailer) until the plot is made clear way more than halfway through the movie. Galifianakis, Fisher and Hamm have all proven their comedic chops but they are all each given just one joke to continue throughout the film; they lack complexity and the film just lacks fun. Gadot, or at least her performance, lacks any sense of comedy and she is reserved as simply a sex object, surely at the studio’s request.
But what’s most frustrating about the film, even more than its abject failure at simple filmmaking technique (the film is horribly lit), is its unearned confidence. Scenes that are meant to be clearly funny moments feel completely distant, as if studio executives thought, “Oh, this will surely get the audience laughing. Let’s stylize it, throw in some slow motion to capitalize on those laughs.” What is most troubling is that Mottola’s earlier films, especially, for me, “Adventureland,” strongly succeeded where his latest fails: comedy should flow naturally, not calculatedly or mechanically.
The film’s marketing campaign included an appeal as a great date movie. It can only be assumed that it would suit those who pay to see a movie then turn away from the screen and make out the whole time. I suppose, then, it fulfills the base requirement of a date movie in that it is, in fact, a movie. In other words, distracted audiences are encouraged, all others should avoid.