[Screen It]

"KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES"
(2016) (Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Action-Comedy: A married couple becomes increasingly suspicious that their new neighbors are too good to be true.
PLOT:
Jeff (ZACH GALIFIANAKIS) and Karen Gaffney (ISLA FISHER) live in a nice suburban Atlanta neighborhood, and with the kids now off to camp, they're all set to enjoy some time by themselves. But they, like their neighbors Meg (MARIBETH MONROE) and Dan (MATT WALSH), are curious about a new couple that has moved in on their cul-de-sac and paid cash for their place. When they first catch sight of Tim (JON HAMM) and Natalie Jones (GAL GADOT) they find the couple too good to be true, what with both being uber attractive and seemingly blissfully married.

While Jeff goes about his job as HR director for an aerospace firm where the work is so top secret even he can't go upstairs, Karen becomes increasingly suspicious about the Joneses, especially when odd things start occurring. And once they break into the couple's home while they're away, Jeff and Karen quickly realize their snooping has gotten them more than they bargained for, leading to a high-stakes game of espionage and such.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
The fun of being a movie reviewer -- beyond making a living watching movies -- is that you learn new things every day. Not necessarily from the movies themselves, although that does occur from time to time, but also from researching any number of elements related to the film, its subject matter, or even just some trivial matter related to some element.

Movie titles themselves sometimes lead one down that path, and that's certainly the case with "Keeping Up With the Joneses." While I was familiar with that idiom -- although I'm not sure today's younger generations hear it as much as we did growing up -- I had no concrete answer about where that originated.

My guess would have been that it perhaps started during the Baby Boom when Americans started moving to the suburbs and suddenly had backyards and began filling them with various creature comforts. You know, something of a kissing cousin to the grass always being greener on the other side of the fence statement.

Lo and behold, I was surprised that a once popular but now mostly forgotten comic strip of the same name dated all of the way back to 1913 and ran until 1940. While the Jones family was never seen in it, they were referenced by the McGinis clan who, natch, tried to keep up with the titular subjects while doing their own social climbing.

As far as I know, no one ever made a movie directly based on the strip, and this week's offering doesn't change that track record. While it is about a couple contending with their neighbors, it's not a comedy or message picture about American commercialism run amuck in some sort of product arms race.

In fact, it's more about first appearances and being envious of both that and the fact that the newest couple in the neighborhood appears quite happy and content in their relationship. And who could blame anyone if they saw Jon "Mad Men" Hamm and Gal "Wonder Woman" Gadot cavorting about, all good looks and svelte bodies.

The main involved creatives -- director Greg Mottola and screenwriter Michael LeSieur -- could have gone an interesting direction from that standpoint, such as having the jealous couple (Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher) trying to one up the newcomers in terms of home additions, gadgets and such, potentially leading to a war of competitive one-upmanship. Or the veteran neighbors could have set out to bring down the newcomers in any sort of devious ways.

Instead, they opt to have the jealous couple spy on, follow and break into the couple's home, only to discover they're domestic spies. All of which means the 105-some minute film turns into one of those action-comedy hybrids that doesn't really work that well on either front. No, it's not an outright abomination as there are a few laughs to be had.

But many of the signature sequences don't work as well as intended. That includes comedy moments such as a visit to a backroom snake restaurant where, yes, that's the signature dish on the menu and, yes, it proves as potentially dangerous as eating pufferfish (albeit for somewhat slightly different, potentially deadly reasons). And most of the action doesn't fare any better, including a sequence involving hitmen on motorcycles chasing the four main characters in one car, with plenty of gunfire back and forth.

Both of those bits and many others simply feel a bit off, resulting in the overall offering suffering from that same fate. Simply put, such individual moments don't work that well as standalone pieces or, more noticeably, as a collective whole. All of which leaves the cast high and dry to do anything remarkable with their characters.

It's nice to see Galifianakis play something other than his typical man-child character, but his everyday-everyman part of being an HR guy who just wants to connect -- especially to Hamm's "travel writer" character -- isn't thought or fleshed-out well enough to engage our funny bone or heart. It would be fun to see Hamm in a well-made spy caper, but this isn't it. Gadot is good in the action moments, and will prove to be provocative eye candy to some (especially in one scene), but the comedy moments are, um, less satisfactory. And while it's always fun to watch Fisher in action, she likewise isn't given enough decent material with which to do anything remarkable.

"Keeping Up With the Joneses" tries to keep up with the cinema's best action-comedies, but it ends up failing in that quest. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed October 13, 2016 / Posted October 21, 2016


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