‘Keeping Up with Joneses’ plays it safe

by Alan Zilberman

Best known as the brooding protagonist of the dramatic series “Mad Men,” Jon Hamm is also a gifted comic actor.

He first hinted at this potential in the web series “Between Two Ferns,” in which interviewer Zach Galifianakis pretends to have contempt for his guest.

Sadly, their latest collaboration, “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” has only a fraction of it. It is the sort of inoffensive comedy that fails to evoke any strong reaction – including laughter.

Jeff Gaffney and his wife, Karen, live in a sleepy suburb. He’s a human resources specialist at a nearby tech company and she’s an interior decorator.

But when new neighbors Tim and Natalie Jones move in across the street, the glamorous couple becomes the talk of the cul-de-sac. They are so incongruous to suburban life that Karen suspects they are not who they say.

Karen is correct, of course: Tim and Natalie are spies who suspect that someone at Jeff’s company may be selling microprocessors to an international arms dealer. Predictably, the couples become embroiled in an espionage scheme, while Jeff attempts to connect with Tim on a man-to-man level.

Director Greg Mottola broke through with the raunchy “Superbad,” so when this film’s first act goes for the safe punch line, it’s not unreasonable to hope that the jokes will eventually kick into a higher gear. Alas, the script by Michael LeSieur (“You, Me and Dupree”) dutifully avoids shock – one of the most important weapons in a comedy writer’s arsenal.

That is not to say that “Keeping Up with Joneses” has no pleasures. As an example, Jeff and Tim discover an underground Chinese restaurant in one scene, where Jeff gets under Tim’s skin in a way he does not anticipate. Fisher is a gifted comedian, too, and there is a long sequence where Karen follows Natalie until they find each other in a vulnerable, intimate place. (There’s an unfortunate double standard here: We see Fisher and Gadot in their underwear, but never their male counterparts). No matter the setup, however, the film always handles its characters delicately, with all the risk-taking of a middlebrow sitcom.

The presence of spy characters guarantees that “Keeping Up with the Joneses” will have action scenes, yet these are generic, too. Tim leads the couples on a car chase over abandoned roads, yet Mottola shows no interest in creating a sense of urgency or suspense, let alone the ability to do so. (A Mercedes logo is prominently displayed here, in a bit of unabashed product placement for a car company that uses Hamm’s voice in its ads.)

Such scenes don’t work unless it is clear how the vehicles move in relation to each other, so editing and camera placement are critical. The chase here has no such attention to detail, instead playing out like a clip from a movie trailer: There’s a promise for something smarter and more specific, but it’s never delivered.

The climax fares no better: The gunfights are perfunctory and the accompanying pratfalls are telegraphed too far in advance. The actors are good sports, but it feels like they’re going along with it for a paycheck.

“Keeping Up with the Joneses” is ostensibly about suburban ennui, and the fear that embracing the American dream may mean giving up on life. Jeff and Karen are in a rut, at least until Tim and Natalie shake them out of it. That’s a concept worthy of exploration, especially in comedy because harsh truths are often more easily delivered with laughs. But Mottola and LeSieur seem to have actively avoided the pursuit of wisdom, settling for broad gags – and the occasional explosion – instead.

The title of this film is a misnomer. Shrewd audiences will be way ahead of the Joneses, as well as the Gaffneys, all four of whom are stuck in the same rut, one whose outcome is never in doubt.

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