The seriousness of the spy genre has always lent itself to parody, from Casino Royale (1967) and Woody Allen’s What’s Up Tiger Lily, to last year’s Spy. Coupled with this is the suburban fantasy of wanting to be a secret agent, even if the majority of you reading this are more Q than 007. It’s in this natural nexus that director Greg Mottola delivers KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES, a kind of modern twist on the Joe Dante cult-favourite The ‘Burbs (1989).
Low-level government worker Jeff Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis) and his interior designer wife Karen (Isla Fisher) live a humdrum existence in their perfect cul-de-sac, where Junetoberfest is the highlight of their social calendar. That is until their “perfect” neighbours Tim (Jon Hamm) and Natalie Jones (Gal Gadot) move in across the street. Karen’s suspicions blossom into a full blown caper as the Gaffney’s simple lives are spun into chaos with the revelation that the couple across the street are spies unlike us.
On a scale of Fisher’s ING commercials at the lower end and Mottola’s Superbad at the other, KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES sits somewhere in the comedic middle. Early in the film, Galifianakis playfully warns a neighbour to “keep it PG,” and the film is obedient in this regard. However, it keeps wanting to brush up against a higher rating, but not actually cross any lines in the process. About the most risqué it gets is one of the Gaffney’s neighbours cautioning her husband that if she finds photos of Gadot’s “ass on his phone, BJ night is cancelled.” Humour ranges from an extended ‘foreign food is weird’ gag (complete with CG snake chunks!) through to groundbreaking commentary about the state of dental care in Britain. At its worst, Galifianakis casually drops a transgender joke that is devoid of context.
Unsurprisingly, the most interesting people in the cast are Hamm and Gadot, but not necessarily for the same reasons. Hamm’s comedy chops get trotted out here again, something he has been demonstrating at least since Bridesmaids, even if he is playing a straight man to Galifianakis. Gadot’s tin-eared line delivery does her few favours for the dialogue-based humour, although a gratuitous set-piece featuring Fisher and the statuesque Gadot uncomfortably bonding in lingerie will undoubtedly be a memorable scene, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons. As the film switches gears and becomes more of a straight action piece, the focus picks up, but it’s still a bit of a mess.
Mottola and writer Michael LeSieur cast a wide net in trying to find a hook for their film, but struggle to get beyond the singular joke that lies at the heart of the script. In a year when we’ve already had the similarly themed Bad Neighbours 2 and Central Intelligence tackle the twin genres that KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES plays with, there is nothing particularly memorable about this outing.