The modern studio comedy increasingly feels limp, suffocated by the financial imperatives of high-concept plots and desperately in search of signs of life. Greg Mottola’s “Keeping Up With the Joneses” is, like many before it, fine enough. But it mostly goes down as another collection of funny people stuck in too narrowly clichéd roles in an overly familiar story.
It’s now been more than 10 years since “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and five since “Bridesmaids.” (Feel old yet?) There have, undoubtedly, been good comedies since, namely things with Melissa McCarthy in them, Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” and anything Wes Anderson is putting out. But there has been perhaps no greater casualty to the constrictions of blockbuster-centric Hollywood than comedy. The freedom necessary for comedy to thrive is mostly found on television; the action is with “Broad City,” “Atlanta,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and others.
Mottola, the director of “Adventureland” and “Superbad,” has been at the center of comedy on both the big screen and on TV (“Arrested Development,” the underrated “Clear History”), but “Keeping Up With the Joneses,” written by Michael LeSieur (”You, Me and Dupree”) doesn’t have much of the naturalism that has distinguished his best.
Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher play Jeff and Karen Gaffney, a regular suburbanite couple experiencing an empty nest for the first time with their kids away at summer camp. An impossibly stylish and accomplished couple moves in next door, the Joneses (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot, taking a break from her Wonder Woman duties). He’s a travel writer who can blow his own glass; she writes a cooking blog and wears cocktail dresses to neighborhood barbeques.
But what makes the Joneses most jealous of them is their easy affection with one another. Though its name is taken from the status-obsessed phrase first made famous by a 1913 comic strip and co-opted by the Kardashians, this “Keeping Up With the Joneses” is a comedy about marital passion rekindled.
That the Joneses are putting up a facade is evident from the start, but the movie cleverly subverts the nature of their secret identities. They are elite government spies of some sort, but not as far removed from the normal squabbles and challenges of marriage as you might think.
The collision of international espionage thrills and quiet suburban life has become familiar by now thanks to the likes of “The Matador,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “The Americans.” When the bullets start flying, “Keeping Up With the Jones” has some moves of its own, thanks to the talents of Galifianakis (here playing a naive, aw-shucks character that limits him) and the always game Fisher. Only Hamm manages to create a three-dimensional character: a James Bond secretly yearning to be a regular guy.
But whatever is cramping the style of “Keeping Up With Joneses” – whether it’s the PG-13 rating, the stock characters or a thin script – the feeling never leaves that everyone here could do better if they were really let loose. Alas, it’s going to take more than Wonder Woman to save the studio comedy.