SUPER-MEH The stars of Mottola’s dopey, derivative dud frequently look
like they’re struggling to remember why they signed on in the first place.
Here's something I've never understood: Bands don't make great recordings and then inexplicably release an album with instruments out of tune and lyrics reduced to gibberish. Comics don't tour for years building a fan base, then unveil a new act composed of racist rants. Why, then, is it so common for directors of fabulous, even timeless, films to follow them with pure crap?
I raise the issue because Superbad (2007) is one of my favorite comedies, and it was directed by Greg Mottola. It wasn't a fluke. He also made 2009's Adventureland. And Paul (2011). And Clear History (2013). Mottola is a gifted filmmaker. So, where were those gifts when he was making the decidedly meh, instantly forgettable Keeping Up With the Joneses?
A director doesn't have to make a given picture. An important part of the filmmaking process, in fact, is writing or choosing a worthwhile script. What attracted Mottola to Michael LeSieur's recycling bin of tired gags and tropes is impossible to imagine. Virtually the only other film LeSieur has written is 2006's cringeworthy You, Me and Dupree, which one reviewer compared to "romantic comedies made by the Third Reich" upon its release.
Like that comedy, Keeping Up With the Joneses pivots on the ancient premise of a suburban couple's picture-perfect existence being turned upside down by a newcomer who proves not to be what they seem. In Dupree, Owen Wilson played a house guest who appalls his hosts with his boorish behavior. In TheJoneses, Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot play undercover operatives who masquerade as Tim and Natalie Jones, an ordinary married couple who've just moved into a home on a quaint Atlanta cul-de-sac. If this sounds like a blatant rip-off of Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), that's because it is. (A moment of silence, please, for Brad and Angelina's marriage.)
Across the street live Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher), a walking, talking checklist of suburban clichés. While their kids are away at summer camp, for example, the pair's idea of getting crazy is binge-watching "The Good Wife." Karen has so little going on with Jeff that she has lots of time to spy on the new neighbors and soon begins to suspect they're up to something. Jeff — whom Galifianakis basically plays as the Ed Helms role from The Hangover series — just happens to work as an HR drone at a major aeronautics manufacturer or defense contractor or something. All we know for sure is that it's a place from which enemies of the state might want to steal top-secret files.
Jeff and Karen, it goes without saying, wind up meddling their way into the middle of Tim and Natalie's mission. So the audience is treated to action-comedy firsts such as car chases, shoot-outs and leaps through plate-glass windows. The joke is — wait for it — that all the mayhem and terror give the boring Gaffneys a new appreciation for their humdrum lives.
I can't recall a time when so much talent was wasted on such an aggressively mediocre script. On top of the leads, the movie also squanders Matt Walsh, Maribeth Moore and Patton Oswalt. It takes a special kind of writer to put words in mouths like theirs and ensure that what comes out is rarely even remotely funny. Yet, once again, LeSieur gets the job done.
The question the viewer's left with is why a guy as gifted as Greg Mottola didn't.