Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher) are an ordinary married couple who begin to suspect their new neighbours, the Joneses (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot), may well be assassins.
There’s a great comedy to be made about a nice guy who starts to suspect that his new next-door neighbours are up to no good, and whose resultant paranoia leads to an explosive escalation of events that threatens his marriage, his home, and his life.
And it already exists. It’s Joe Dante’s The ’Burbs, not Greg Mottola’s Keeping Up With The Joneses, a rather muddled effort which doesn’t even begin to explore the comedic potential of its premise: what would you do if you lived next to two super-spies who might be out to kill you?
The problem here is in comedic tension, or the lack thereof. The question of whether Hamm and Gadot’s cool, sexy Joneses, who’ve moved next door to Galifianakis and Fisher’s staid, safe Jeff and Karen Gaffney, are super-spies is resolved fairly quickly (no prizes for guessing that they are). From that point on, it’s all about their true intentions as they inveigle their way into the Gaffneys’ life — are they John and Jane Bond, good guys sent to protect them? Or John and Jane Smith, murderous assassins sent to glean crucial info before offing them?
The film is plagued by the spectre that haunts so much modern American comedy: improvisation.
There’s perhaps a version of this movie where we never find out until the last reel, and where comedy springs naturally from the tension as Galifianakis and Fisher, suspicions aroused, poke into their neighbours’ affairs. But, perhaps because the Joneses are played by two major movie stars who demand a fair chunk of screen time, that never quite happens. Instead, we get a series of mildly amusing sequences where the Gaffneys bond with the Joneses over a drunken encounter at a clandestine snake restaurant (yes, the men), or a weird moment trying on sexy underwear in a shopping-mall changing room (yes, the women). There’s nothing surprising or unexpected about these scenes — does exposure to the Gaffneys awaken a yearning in the Joneses for the more mundane aspects of life? You betcha. In turn, do the Gaffneys find the spark their slightly dull marriage needs? Take a wild guess.
There are some chuckles — Gadot has a few good zingers poking fun at her ridiculous good looks (“Just because I don’t need to moisturise doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings”). Otherwise, though, the overwhelming feeling is that the film is plagued by the spectre that haunts so much modern American comedy: improvisation. There is a script (by Michael LeSieur) — there has to be with a comedy this plot-heavy — but all too often there’s a feeling that the cast are floundering around, left to fend for themselves and find the punchlines. It’s a waste of some excellent comedic talent, including Fisher, Matt Walsh (from Veep), and Hamm, who has been hilarious on the likes of 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live. But nowhere is the sense of an opportunity missed stronger than with Galifianakis, who’s straitjacketed in a role as a loveable schlub. Galifianakis is an actor who revels in anarchy; here, he’s reduced to watching the anarchy unfold from the periphery, and you can almost sense his palpable frustration.
If the comedy in an action-comedy doesn’t quite deliver, then everything depends on the action. Mottola’s handled booms and bangs before, notably in Paul, but an extended set-piece featuring cars, bikes and lots of screaming fails to excite, while the final face-off is as humdrum as they come. It’s just a shame the action is ham-fisted when it should have been Hamm-fisted.
An unfortunate misfire that has the odd moment of charm and the odder chuckle, but otherwise isn’t worth keeping up with.