Even those of us with a soft spot for dumb, high-concept Hollywood comedies might be outraged by the limp, unfunny nothingburger that is Keeping Up With the Joneses. A wan attempt to mix the comedy of domestic anxiety with the comedy of inept espionage — think Neighbors meets Central Intelligence — Greg Mottola's film plays like a rough outline waiting to be filled in. It’s as if somebody wrote out the basic setup, figured they would flesh out the character bits and plot twists and jokes later … and then never got around to it. It’s dispiriting and infuriating all at once.
You know the story, even if you don't know the story. Jeff (Zach Galifianakis) and Karen Gaffney (Isla Fisher) are a happy, blah suburban husband and wife who become fascinated by the mysterious, good-looking couple who've just moved in next door. Rugged Tim Jones (Jon Hamm) says he's a travel writer, while the statuesque Natalie (Gal Gadot) claims to be a social-media consultant and an activist for Sri Lankan orphans, but Jeff and Karen and their fellow neighbors suspect something is up. And something is up, because why have a movie otherwise? Why, indeed.
The husbands and wives get closer: World traveler Tim takes the provincial Jeff to a local underground “snake restaurant” and shows some unusual interest in the man’s job as head of human resources for a big, secretive aerospace firm. (It’s the kind of place where security is so tight that some employees aren’t even allowed to use the internet. So they go to Jeff’s office and use his computer to get online, which makes perfect sense.) Meanwhile, Karen secretly follows Natalie around for something like two minutes before the two are in a clothing-store dressing room together trying on lingerie. (It's a lot less exciting than it sounds.)
Thus, the ostensible narrative about a mousy couple uncovering their neighbors’ secret spy identities gives way to a tale of self-discovery, as empty-nester homebodies Jeff and Karen realize they need variety and action in their lives and globe-hopping, baddie-killing Tim and Natalie realize that they need consistency and communication in theirs.
Unfortunately, the film does almost nothing with that irony other than point it out and then just let it hang there. The script (by Michael LeSieur, who wrote the similarly lifeless and drab You, Me and Dupree) can't muster any real interest in recognizable human details or the familiar conflicts that made movies such as Neighbors or even Date Night work — the allure of regressing to one's youthful self, say, or the difficulties of adjusting to domestic stasis. This kind of mainstream comedy thrives on such audience identification, but it needs to do the work of actually making us care about these people just a little bit. Even the action scenes feel drained of energy or purpose.
Still, all these structural lapses and character-development issues might have been forgiven if the film were actually funny. But it wastes its strongest weapon: its cast. As a confident, strapping super-agent, Hamm looks like he’s having fun, but Gadot seems stilted, unable to break free of her glower. More important, and tragically, the film plays Galifianakis and Fisher — who are usually at their best when they're somewhat unhinged, bringing a surreal edge to their material — as bland normies. You keep waiting for them to lose it, to breathe some much-needed life into this thing, but nope. Their awkwardness never really breaks out into full-fledged lunacy. That shutting down of these performers' talents almost seems willful, like a conceptual twist.
Maybe that’s the joke? Certainly, the film seems to go out of its way to be unfunny — repeatedly emphasizing, for example, Jeff’s penchant for lame puns. (“Did I tell you I ate at an Indian restaurant last night?” he asks an Indian co-worker. “I had to call and make an Indian reservation.” Ho ho ho.) There is something to be said for a comedy that makes its characters’ sheer lack of wit its central conceit, that succeeds in making us laugh by daring to be an anti-comedy. There's not much to be said for Keeping Up With the Joneses except this: I suspect the trouble here is not po-mo deviousness but sheer ineptitude.