84. Keeping Up with the Joneses

Keeping Up with the Joneses is another one of those movies of which I didn’t necessarily expect a whole lot, but that sucked me in with the cast.  Specifically, Zach Galifianakis and Gal Gadot (who was pretty handily the best thing about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).  The trailer was fairly funny and director Greg Mottola has a couple of notable films on his resume with Superbad and Adventureland but that wasn’t enough to raise my expectations to the point where I was anticipating anything more than a fairly amusing diversion.

And that’s exactly what I got.  The cast that I was looking forward to is exactly what saves the film – almost singlehandedly – from being a total miss.  With the sole screenwriting credit going to Michael LeSieur, the script is almost a complete failure from beginning to end.  The primary goals of a comedy need to be, you know, wit and humor.  If not for the overachieving cast (more on them in a bit), nearly every joke and gag would have fallen completely flat.  The film is permeated by transparent, foreshadowed “jokes” that become tiresome within minutes.  I wanted dialogue to take me by surprise and zig when I expected a zag.  That’s the key to comedy.  Instead, the movie feels like it was written by someone who always found Jay Leno’s monologues to be the height of intelligent comedy.

Mottola’s direction of the comedy was really no better.  Sometimes, the gags need as much visual misdirection as verbal, and the camera angles and timing of the cuts and editing often betray the surprise element required of a successful joke.  I maybe smirked or chuckled a handful of times, but I was not once compelled to actually laugh throughout the entire film.

The marketing hampered the entre first act, as well, which is spent trying to deduce the true nature of the Joneses.  But that’s a lot of time to waste, since the film’s publicity continually shouts about how they’re undercover spies.  That isn’t the fault of the filmmakers, themselves, but rather an instance of the marketing department not understanding the film they had on their hands.  Had that revelation been kept a secret, the first act quite possibly could have been a lot of fun, which is a shame.

As I alluded to, the four principles in the cast manage to redeem the film into something watchable.  They all possess the ability to take an unfunny line or gag and deliver it in a way that makes it almost work in spite of itself.  For example, when Zach Galifianakis is forced to utter Random Unfunny, Pedestrian Line #31, it’s often Jon Hamm’s reaction as his character Tim that saves the moment.  And Galifianakis’s delivery, too, is practically always on point, allowing him to frequently take a line that is intended to be funny and, knowing that a genuine laugh isn’t likely, at least twist it to help make his pathetic underdog character Jeff more endearing.

It’s not just the men, though.  Isla Fisher accomplishes much of the same as Galifianakis and Hamm.  Gal Gadot plays it a little more straight but is quickly morphing into quite an action hero.  The other aspect of Keeping Up with the Joneses worth praising is the second-act action scene.  Here, Mottola really delivers, with inventive spots and immersive cinematography and shot selection.  Based on what I saw in this film, I think he might want to consider switching genres.  Gadot is the on-screen standout here.  It’s impressive to see how casual and effortless it appears for her to transform from graceful, elegant, and seemingly delicate into threatening, intimidating, and a match for virtually anyone who may cross her path.  For a few minutes, I forgot that I was watching a struggling comedy and believed I was in the middle of a lighthearted, well-constructed action picture.

The film attempts to be a mix between Spy and Mr. & Mrs. Smith.  But it’s not funny enough to match up to the former and there’s not enough quality action for it to match up to the latter.  The only saving graces are that mid-film action scene and a cast that’s too talented to be in this movie.  I can only speculate that perhaps they signed on because they saw it as a challenge to themselves.  I don’t know.  I don’t want to put words in their mouths.  Maybe they really liked the script and believed in it.  And that’s fine.  Perhaps I should just  be glad they signed on because they are the film’s only persistent merit.

So, thanks to those two things, the film isn’t a completely horrible time.  But it’s poorly written and almost just as poorly directed.  I wish everyone involved continued success but I also want to see better from those behind the camera, in the future.  I felt like they didn’t believe the audience would comprehend more intelligent humor and so settled for giving us the humor that middle-schoolers on message boards would come up with and think was just hilarious (Galifianakis at one point literally makes an exact joke that I remember making when I was in the sixth grade and about to get on an airplane.  I thought it was hilarious.  And for an eleven-year-old, it was pretty good.  But not for a major motion picture.).  So, if you find yourself sitting down to catch this one, immerse yourself in the efforts of the cast and lay back and enjoy that nebulous action scene that I keep referring to.  But don’t expect anything resembling a comedy classic.  You’ll only be setting yourself up for disappointment.

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