Director Greg Mottola's Keeping Up with the Joneses is a basket that brims with freshly plucked low-hanging fruit. When a couple of covert agents ("the Joneses") move in next door to a basic married couple in a sleepy upper-middle-class neighbourhood, obvious jokes and lacklustre high jinks ensue.
Despite having directed the buddy-comedy Superbad and a handful of episodes of Undeclared and Arrested Development, Mottola's laughing streak has petered out. Wasting the significant comedic talents of both Jon Hamm (famously the dour face of Mad Men, but scene-stealingly funny in Bridesmaids and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover trilogy), this story of the spies next door is wooden and slow-paced with enough intrigue to lull a toddler to sleep.
Co-stars Isla Fisher (Arrested Development) and Gal Gadot (soon to be known as Wonder Woman when the DC Comics film comes out next year) as soccer mom and spy wife, respectively, only dig this movie deeper into the trenches of its own banality. Mottola's film is the unfortunate result of too much talent met with a clunky script – and the movie crumples under the weight of the cast's star power.
The opening sequence of this flaccid action-comedy riffs off the iconic first moments of David Lynch's Blue Velvet and the suburban veneer of happiness that also crops up in Sam Mendes's American Beauty – so that it's clear to everyone the director has an MFA. This film-buff homage also ensures the tone is firmly set: within this picturesque idyll of white picket fences, there is rot. And how!
Pretensions aside, it is worth noting the movie does take the trouble to underline the commonplace racism that takes root when block upon block of rich white folk live together in one homogeneous cul-de-sac of resemblance. The cast is as pale as the residents that would realistically be welcome in a wealthy American suburb – and yet, the jokes that take aim at this abiding preference for similarity (gags about eating Chinese food and superstitions about travel abroad) fall flat like all the rest.
That's because the movie's jokes are too on the nose, too predictable, too easy. Watching Galifianakis is especially painful only because it feels as if his natural talents are straitjacketed by the insipid script and Mottola's direction. Here, he plays a soft and clueless human-resources office chimp who is oblivious to the scheming and literal arms dealing taking place around him.
In his role as HR stooge, the best parts of Galifianakis's physical comedy are muted to the point of awkward radio silence. But this is not the personal failing of Galifianakis. Just watch his recent interview with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on his Internet talk show, Between Two Ferns, and see the comic in all his restrained and biting splendour.
Keeping Up with the Joneses does pick up some speed when it finally gets to the actual action sequences, but, for reasons unknown, it takes more than an hour of new-neighbour-meet-cutes to get there.
Yet, the film drags out a "love thy neighbour" narrative that sticks around until the final scene. A villain introduced in the late stages of the interminable movie (Patton Oswalt arriving like a canteen of fresh water in the desert of this movie) asks to please be "spared the morality" when Hamm starts in on a monologue about "good, kind-hearted people." I'm with the villain on this one. Spare us all.