What a squandered opportunity for director Greg Mottola to churn out a generically noisy suburban spy spoof in the toothless comedy caper Keeping Up with the Joneses. Woefully strained and exhaustive, Mottola’s off-kilter espionage bag of cheap chuckles barely manages to scrape off a scattered selection of smirks here and there. It never takes full advantage of its intended gimmick as taking a pseudo-hearty potshot at American suburbia and meshing its weak-kneed tomfoolery with a conventional government operative farce can instead be dubbed as “Mission: Improbable.” The obviousness of this bland and inconsequential laugher is inexcusable given the pedigree of this particular filmmaker who has blessed movie audiences previously with shrewd and rollicking fare such as “Superbad,” “Adventureland” and “The Daytrippers.”
Mottola with screenwriter Michael LeSieur (“You, Me and Dupree”) struggle to keep the anemic laughs afloat which is quite puzzling given the inclusion of powerhouse huckster Zach Galifianakis (“The Hangover” ) and the charming and debonair Jon Hamm (Emmy award winner for “Mad Men”). In fact, both Galifianakis and Hamm are somewhat true blue to their familiar on-screen personas here, but the meager material literally lets them down in a pile of sluggish wittiness that rarely registers on its hit-or-miss meter of hilarity. With feminine anchors Gal Gadot (“Wonder Woman”) and Isla Fisher (gloriously remembered as the goofy-minded sexpot in 2005’s “Wedding Crashers”) rounding out the quartet of off-balanced spying suburbanites, the manufactured shenanigans in Keeping Up with the Joneses will certainly beg for the nostalgic nuttiness that was Brangelina’s noted pairing in the better received “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” from over a decade ago.
The marital malaise is quite evident between marrieds Jeff (Galifianakis) and Karen Gaffney (Fisher). While their kids are off to camp the uneventful couple has nothing better to do than to undergo surveillance tactics as they focus their curiosities on the super attractive neighbors Tim and Natalie Jones (Hamm and Gadot) who had just moved into their cozy cul-de-sac surroundings. Both Tim and Natalie seem too good to be true in terms of their polished appearances, both personally and professionally and naturally, there is no comparison to be remotely made to the middle-aged and slightly cherubic HR aerospace manager Tim and ditzy Natalie. After all, handsome and fit Tim is a Chinese-speaking travel writer and gorgeous and curvaceous Natalie oversees a successful cooking website with a special attachment for neglected children. Of course little do the Gaffneys realize is that the impeccable Joneses are . . . gasp . . . seasoned undercover agents infiltrating their all-American suburban haven.
Apparently, Karen harbors some cynicism about the larger-than-life Joneses that just does not sit right with her. Jeff, on the other hand, gets a kick out of the dashing Tim and seems rather grateful that this smooth operator has paid him some attention, thus gaining him an unexpected friendship to counter his seemingly dull and lonely existence in a manicured neighborhood that is not as idyllic as it really seems. However, Jeff finally comes to the conclusion that there is something awfully peculiar about the Joneses and that Karen may have been correct about all along. The Gaffneys are soon drawn into an intriguing ribaldry with the slick international operatives and just as soon, random explosions, daring window-crashing leaps, colorful motorcycling chases are wildly presented between clumsy social gatherings at backyard barbecues and lingerie-fitting moments between the wives. The cartoonish carnage feels conveniently forced and the sight gags and glib exchanges have all the clever timing of a discharged water gun.
Keeping Up with the Joneses is an espionage action-comedy that meanders in its broad banality. The genuine satirical message about how one can actually be lost and isolated in the dreamy bedroom communities of prosperous America is sound and promising. Nevertheless, Mattola opts to saturate this derivative actioner with needless and recycled mayhem that never really quite registers with what could have been the film’s observational theme — living large in the comfortable confines of “Apple Pie, USA” does not automatically entitle one to emotional or psychological completeness and true sense of one’s self. Instead, Mattola is only interested in delivering a disjointed and rowdy spy spectacle saddled on the bouncy shoulders of the canned comic relief regarding both Galifianakis and Fisher’s sketchy escapades. Why couldn’t LeSieur’s patchy script do more of a decent job in allowing Hamm and Gadot’s Joneses to monumentally play up the unfamiliar suburban norms that their undercover agent roles would have been so awkward at maintaining?
The possibilities for the Gaffneys secretly wanting an adventurous lifestyle in spying and styling while the Joneses entertaining the notion of actually settling down and planting their explosive feet in sedate Americana could have been done competently had the frivolous narrative bothered to address the comedic contradictions. The throwaway gags, for instance, involving elite restaurants that serve chopped-up live snake as a desired dish or watching the obligatory climax of having our savvy spies making an animated splash into a swimming pool to escape certain doom is enough reason to have Keeping Up with the Joneses classified as an aborted mission to a lesser degree.