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Movie Beat: “Keeping Up with the Joneses” surprisingly sweet
by Jenniffer Wardell
Oct 25, 2016 | 906 views | 0 0 comments | 156 156 recommendations | email to a friend | print

© 20th Century Fox
© 20th Century Fox
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Rated PG-13 for sexual content, action/violence and brief strong language

Screenplay by Michael LeSieur

Directed by Greg Mottola

Starring Isla Fisher, Zach Galifianakis, Gal Godot, Jon Hamm, Patton Oswalt, Matt Walsh, Maribeth Monroe and more

Grade: Three stars

There's a lot of heart buried beneath the ridiculousness, and a sprinkle of actual insight along the top.

Those two elements, along with an excellent set of performances from the four main leads, are what elevate "Keeping Up with the Joneses" beyond what it appears to be in the trailers. Though it has as many pratfalls and embarrassing moments as the average slapstick comedy - including a bit with a tranquilizer dart that's apparently standard for all spy comedies - the movie's jokes come from a place of deep affection for everyone and everything involved. Because of that, the whole thing goes down much more smoothly and sweetly than most comedies today, and will linger more pleasantly in the memory afterward.

The movie focuses on Jeff and Karen Gaffney, a suburban couple played by Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher, prepared to enjoy a quiet suburban summer after sending their kids away to camp. Then new neighbors move in, Tim and Natalie Jones, who seem beautiful, worldly and accomplished. When Karen starts to suspect the Joneses are hiding something, however, their lives suddenly become much more complicated.

The setup of a poor innocent rube getting sucked into a world of danger and espionage is a common one in spy comedies, and “Keeping Up with the Joneses” uses several of the tropes (including the gratuitous girl-on-girl kiss for “spy” purposes). There’s also a whole sequence with a severed snake head full of all the flailing a comedy fan could possibly hope for.

But there’s a gentleness to all of it that’s really appealing. After the gratuitous girl-on-girl kiss for example, Galifianakis’s character doesn’t have the usual lusty reaction. Instead, he’s worried his wife really has realized she likes girls better and is going to leave him, and is oh-so-grateful when she isn’t. Even when the characters yell at each other, they never belittle each other, and there are some genuine moments of friendship between the four lead characters.

There’s also a trace of genuine insight here as well. The rhythms of marriage, both as seen through the Gaffreys and the Joneses, are beautifully rendered – taking advantage of a few precious moments of alone time, “serious” conversations about what one spouse just ordered at Chile’s, and how complicated it can get having your spouse’s back. “Keeping Up with the Joneses” comments more intelligently about marriage, and what it means to maintain it, then any number of more “serious” movies (and even quite a few marriage-themed self-help books).

Though he normally plays characters so stupid you’re amazed they figured out how to stand upright, Galifianakis dials that back here to play a sweet, empathic man who’s just gently oblivious. Fisher’s usual sharpness is dialed back without being dulled, a woman who’s clearly the brains of the relationship but loves her husband’s heart. The two have an excellent chemistry that never tips into meanness, and even at their craziest you can see that they clearly have a happy, stable marriage.

Jon Hamm and Gal Godot are also charming, both showing a deft touch for comedy and bringing a surprising amount of emotion to what could all too easily be stock roles. The two also have a nice chemistry, threading their relationship with the same little rhythms and arguments of any married couple. Just because you can ninja kick someone in the head doesn’t mean you don’t struggle with communication the same way everyone else does.

And just because “Keeping Up with the Joneses” looks just like every other dumb action comedy that’s ever come out doesn’t mean it is.

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