Movies do their best to make suburbia, the typical setting of the American dream, look mundane. But the suburbs, in America or anywhere else, can’t possibly be as mundane as “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” a Hollywood misfire of rare incompetence. I’d call it boilerplate, but that would be misleading, since it implies that the material might be vaguely entertaining despite its unoriginality.
So what went wrong? Casting Zach Galifianakis as the hero is the most obvious mistake. He’s an actor who looks like he should be smoking pot in someone’s parents’ wood-paneled basement, but here he’s a middle-class square. Worse yet is Galifianakis’ utter disdain for normal people, whom he thinks are uniformly stupid, ignorant and naive. He was funny in “The Hangover,” but when his idea of wit here is to mispronounce “jalapeño,” it becomes obvious this is a performer with precious little human insight.
He plays Jeff, a human resources manager at a defense contractor who thinks highly of the stress ball. His wife is Karen (Isla Fisher), an interior designer working on a home bathroom with a urinal.
Their routine is broken when Tim and Natalie, a pair of spies, move in next door. They’re played by Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot as living catalog models, impossibly attractive and without a flaw between them, unless you count the script not supplying either with a single funny thing to say. Before too long, they’ve dragged Jeff and Karen into in a world of car chases, shootouts and espionage. It should be exciting. It isn’t.
Scene after scene is inert, humorously and dramatically. The writers default to the lamest gag possible in every circumstance, and liberally plunder gags from other, better comedies. Neither couple has any serious problems with one another, meaning there’s no narrative tension, only a wait for the plot to move along. Fisher and Hamm both bring sharp comic timing to the table, except the filmmakers forgot to bring a table. The actors flail about, adrift in a sea of bad sitcom dialogue.
At the end, a certain famous comedian parachutes in for an extended cameo as a villainous arms dealer. For a few minutes, the movie is funny, though that the comedian’s obvious improvisations are amusing is a damning indictment of the written script.