Cinematically speaking, there are few things worse than a bad comedy. With any other genre, there is at least the hope for some degree of schadenfreude to sustain an inept film as unintentional comedy, but a comedy is designed explicitly to make us laugh, so a failure in that task isn’t enjoyable on any level, ironic or otherwise. Enter Keeping Up With The Joneses, a film that presents itself as funny and desperately wants to be funny, but very rarely rises to the occasion.
Set in a suburban cul-de-sac, average couple Jeff (Zach Galifianakis) and Karen (Isla Fisher) send their kids off to summer camp as a mysterious new couple moves in just down the street. They are Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot), a pair so seemingly perfect and accomplished that it raises Karen’s suspicions. She decides to snoop on her new neighbors as Jeff and Tim become closer. What Jeff and Karen don’t yet realize is that there is more to the Joneses than meets the eye, as they are secret agents brought to the town for purposes unknown.
The film’s plot and jokes are built around this notion that the spies may have something to learn of the brutal domestic lifestyle of white suburbia while the suburbanites could stand to loosen up and risk an adventure beyond their lifestyle. In theory, this is at least somewhat fertile groundwork for commentary on the pros and cons of banality and routine, but this isn’t really a film written with that level of intelligence. Rather, this is the kind of comedy that relies on outlandish situations and the charisma of its leads in order to carry the non-jokes that populate the script. The situations themselves are plodding and predictable for the most part, and I call them non-jokes because the punchlines are so predictable and uninspired that it leaves no room for the kind of surprise necessary to make a good joke land. There’s the skeletal structure of a comedy here, but there’s no meat on the bones. Not even the comic talents of Galifianakis, Fisher, and Hamm—Gadot never actually serves much narrative purpose beyond being eye candy—can save the film from itself.
It certainly doesn’t help that the film’s direction is lackluster at best, downright lazy at worst. Everyone seems to have been told to say their lines with as much wacky delivery—or sexy, in Gadot’s case—as possible without regard to timing or context, and almost every scene is shot in the most basic shot-reverse-shot style, making it a visually dull experience as well. Even when the film breaks out into its obligatory action sequences, there’s no sense of geography or coherence to what is happening between shots, leading to scenes that give the impression of high stakes without delivering any sense of investment.
I won’t lie and claim that I went the entire film without laughing, as the three comedic leads did manage to make the occasional line land; after all, even someone throwing darts blindly is bound to hit the board every once in a while. And if you’re just hoping to see Gal Gadot be sexy on screen for a while, I guess you get your fill of that, too. But overall, this is not a well-constructed film. This is not a thrilling film. This is not a funny film. This is just a dull, trite lump of failure.