In the era of “Peak TV”, movies have to work harder. For some films, that means just going bigger and offering a level of spectacle that most television shows can’t hope to match. They take full advantage of the big screen and promise to give you your money’s worth. Other films try to tackle subject material that’s immediate enough to not require ten hours of programming, but also complex enough that you really want to be immersed in the topic. That leaves comedies in a tricky position because unless you’re going for an R-rating, then the kind of jokes you’re supplying are readily available on network television.
While it may promise some action bombast and movie stars, Greg Mottola’s Keeping Up with the Joneses basically operates at the level of a network sitcom, and not a critically acclaimed one like Black-ish or Fresh Off the Boat. More like a CBS comedy where you keep expecting a laughtrack to come in to remind you to chuckle when our hapless protagonists get in over their heads. And that kind of comedy has its place. There were moments where I laughed at Keeping Up with the Joneses, but I saw the film less than a week ago, and I’m struggling to remember anything that happened in it. It’s disposable entertainment of the lowest order.
Jeff (Zach Galifianakis) and Karen Gaffney (Isla Fisher) are content living boring lives in suburbia, and they happily welcome their charming new neighbors, Tim (Jon Hamm) and Natalie Jones (Gal Gadot). While Jeff sees the opportunity to make a new friend in Tim and possibly a partner for indoor skydiving, Karen is somewhat suspicious of the Joneses. Karen’s suspicions are confirmed when they discover that the gift they received from the Joneses had a listening device in it. Eventually, Tim and Natalie are forced to not only come clean with the Gaffneys, but also end up recruiting them into their top-secret mission to stop an arms dealer known as The Scorpion.
If you want a movie that won’t challenge or surprise you in any way, shape, or form, then Keeping Up with the Joneses has a purpose, and there’s a purpose for movies like Keeping Up with the Joneses. While I’m not a believer in “turn off your brain” movies, I also accept that there are people who have hard, difficult lives, and maybe they don’t want to then spend money to find further challenges at the multiplex. There’s a place for softball comedy that Keeping Up with the Joneses has to offer.
And that place is on television. If you’re going to make a movie that celebrates suburbanites and suburban living and makes Jeff and Karen into heroes even though there’s nothing even remotely heroic about them, then why demand that your audience get in a car, pay for an overpriced ticket, sit through twenty minutes of trailers, and then get a movie that gives them the same level of jokes they can get if they just turn on network TV during primetime?
There’s nothing particularly wrong with Keeping Up with the Joneses. It’s not offensive beyond some off-color jokes made by Jeff, and it’s not like it’s painfully unfunny. The cast has good chemistry, and I would like to see them together again in a better movie. As it stands, they’re in a movie that could be done in about 22 minutes plus commercials.