Film Review: 'Keeping Up with the Joneses'

By Owen Gleiberman

LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - No American actor has ever been cast in the role of James Bond. But given how often British actors are now hired to play Americans (do most audiences even know that performers from Carey Mulligan to Charlie Hunnam hail from across the pond?), the time may have come to break that tradition. Especially given that there's an American who was put on earth to play Bond: Jon Hamm.

He's positively Sean Connery-esque. Which is to say, Hamm is the rare actor who combines old-fashioned matinee-idol dash with an impossibly cool facade and a diamond hardness that would make him utterly convincing as a lethal existential cutthroat. (Could he do the whole British thing? Of course! He's a fantastic actor.) Now don't get me wrong: I worship Daniel Craig. But if he's getting as tired of Bond as he has sometimes insinuated, why not let Hamm step right up? He looks like he could snap Tom Hiddleston in two. And if you want to imagine what Hamm might look like in the role, you get a bit of a light dry run watching him in "Keeping Up with the Joneses," an amiable time killer of an espionage comedy that casts him as a U.S. government spy, married to another U.S. government spy, portrayed by Gal Gadot as a slightly more earthbound sort of wonder woman.

The two play Tim and Natalie Jones, who seem to have arrived from a planet of ridiculously great-looking Amazonian super-people. The Joneses have come to live on a nice little homey cul-de-sac in Atlanta, and from the moment they move in, it's fairly obvious that they're not what they seem. He claims to be a travel writer who blows glass for a hobby, and she's a social-media consultant who fills up the rest of her calendar with charity work, sort of like the missing Kardashian of Middle America. The Israeli-born Gadot, here playing an Israeli-born American agent, knows how to carry herself like a regal dominatrix, but that gets old fast. She's better in the few scenes where she's allowed to relax into something playful and show off her Kate Bush smile.

The Joneses are wizards at what they do, but the one thing they aren't too good at is impersonating ordinary people. Yet they make a token effort to befriend the suburban-geek neighbors across the street: Jeff and Karen Gaffney, played by Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher. He's an office-space drone who works as a human-resources counselor at MBI, an aerospace defense corporation, and she's a freelance home-design consultant. (Yes, this is the sort of movie in which the real jobs sound as fake as the fake jobs.) The Gaffneys have sent their two boys away to camp for the summer, which means that they finally have the time to discover what utterly boring and sexless and inconsequential lives they lead.

Galifianakis, slimmed down and with a goatee, seems at first like a balsa-wood version of his former self. The original Galifianakis brand, after all, was built around the following things: major beard, major fusillades of nerdish word salad, major ability to come off as utterly certifiable. Yet the annoyingly gifted comic artist hasn't disappeared. In "Keeping Up with the Joneses," he's more innocuous, but after a while you realize that Galifianakis is doing a satire of innocuousness. He's playing a noodge with a heart of gold -- a guy who genuinely wants to help people, and becomes more profoundly irritating every moment he tries to do so. Isla Fisher, as a woman who'd not only put up with this guy but stand by him, is the film's perky center of sanity: the indomitable cuddlebug next door.

"Keeping Up with the Joneses" is a descendant of a genre that has no exact name yet dates back to "Fun with Dick and Jane" (1977), which is to say that the movie announces in every scene: "It's comedy! It's action! It's far-fetched middle-class fantasy! About outrageously typical people! Who get yanked outside of the System! Yet remain typical!" There's something likably daft yet third-rate about a movie whose thrust is to liberate folks from their depressing everyday roles -- even as the running joke is that you can take the people out of their humdrum lives, but you can't take the humdrum, etc. That said, the picture was directed by Greg Mottola, a sometimes great filmmaker ("Adventureland") who attempts to bring a spark of humanity to everything he does, and there are moments he gets something going between the actors.

The Joneses have sham motives for approaching the Gaffneys, but when the two men team up for a Chinese lunch, and Tim takes Jeff to a hidden bunker of a place that specializes in serving freshly killed snake, the film's comic energy gets revved. Galifianakis and Hamm really play off each other -- they're utterly opposite control freaks, and the bromance that emerges is so mismatched that it attains a surreal logic. Hamm is at his best taking no prisoners, but at one point Tim confides to Jeff that he sometimes hates his job. I was hoping this was a bit of a con on his part, but no: Tim is a secret agent in the middle of a career crisis, one that has spilled over into his marriage.

The Joneses are supposed to be a real couple, bonded in love and espionage (and the fact that they're inevitably the tallest glamour-pusses in the room), but the script, a real cookie-cutter job by Michael LeSieur ("You, Me and Depree"), makes the mistake of turning Hamm's icy hotshot into a secret schmo. It seems to violate the film's basic design when Tim, at a diner after a shootout, blows the couple's cover simply because he's feeling a little crestfallen. Besides, who wants to see a crestfallen Jon Hamm? The actor seems more than game to undercut his image, and he's pretty sly about it, but it's hard to shake the feeling that there was a little executive bird perched on someone's shoulder chirping, "You've got to make him more relatable." Earth to movie executives: This is not what Jon Hamm should be doing! He's the rare actor who combines intelligence and danger. He deserves better than playing the good sport about his post-"Mad Men" career options by clowning around in piffle like this.

Motorcycle chases, blazing firearms, shattered plate-glass windows: "Keeping Up with the Joneses" delivers its ritual quota of action as it checks off every squares-meet-the-suaves domestic-spy-comedy box. It all culminates in an elaborate sting operation designed to ensnare a mysterious arms dealer, played by the last actor you'd expect to see playing a mysterious arms dealer. Which means that, like everything else in "Keeping Up with the Joneses," he's exactly what you'd expect.

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