Keeping Up With the Joneses is a simple movie, with a simple premise: people are rarely what they seem. Generally, it’s a pretty fun espionage spoof that that brings a benevolent pair of cosmopolitan action heroes to the suburban heartland of America. Its title uses a similar appellative joke as Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), that banks on audience finding humour in the incongruence of a common name masking an uncommon skill.1 The Joneses, like the Smiths, are secret agents, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the envelopes in their mailbox. The new kids on the block, Tim (Jon Hamm) and Natalie (Gal Gadot) seem to live regular lives, just like their neighbours, Karen (Isla Fisher) and Jeff Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis).
As is common with sexy action movies, Keeping Up With the Joneses has the titular couple’s initiation into the neighbourhood come via a impressive display of skill. In this case, it’s a suspiciously accurate dart game (that doubles as a misogynist smackdown). It’s a classic spy movie meet cute moment, something that Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) did in their movie, engaging in the foreplay of a carnival duck-shooting game. The Joneses are like Bart and Laurie in Gun Crazy (1950), who famously get off shooting guns at each other when they first meet, though the attempt to seduce in this film is that of one power couple and their environment, and this is presumably something that they engage in at every new home, because they can’t help it.2 And you can’t blame them; they are tall, rich, beyond good looking, they can destroy an armed ambush and barely break a sweat.
It is indeed ridiculous how perfect Tim and Natalie are as specimens, how ludicrous and unlikely the scenarios that they conquer are, but the script consistently makes fun of itself in this vein.3 These amusing and clever moments show that director Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) and screenwriter Michael LeSieur are not quite so tone-deaf as some of their other jokes—which include a very unfortunate and completely unnecessary aside made at the expense of transgender people and non-heteronormative desires—might make them seem. Saying this, the film is gently funny, not hilarious, and it mostly works. Hamm and Gadot have wonderful chemistry; in fact, all four work well together, with Wonder Woman Gadot and star comic player Fisher winning the game, so it’s easy to have fun with the basic plot.
Despite this, there’s something sour in basing this tale on quaint suburbia’s favourite idiom. Of his inspiration for the film, LeSieur has said: “It’s so endearing and funny that people could find that much happiness in something that simple.”4 Perhaps that’s why the creators went for a title that harkens back to a nineteenth century phrase; suburban tradition stuck in the past etc. Unfortunately, the Joneses themselves can come across as equally condescending in their tone towards the Gaffneys, and as such a tone is clearly unintended on a character and script level, that’s clearly what is wrong with the film. Where something like last year’s Spy celebrates the everyday hero of someone like Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), a fearless CIA analyst who happens to excel at kicking experienced espionage butt, suggesting that intellectual intelligence leads to physical strength and daring, the Joneses ultimately treat the Gaffneys as a blip in their perfect lives. As they leave the cul-de-sac, having finished their particular mission, they offer belittling condolences that Jeff and Karen will have to return to their regular lives, and this undoes any genuine emotional connection established.
By this point, it’s clear that the film overstays its welcome. While it’s nice touch that it doesn’t exactly perpetuate gendered stereotypes, with the cheesy voiceover that establishes appreciation of the suburbs spoken by Galifianakis, and Tim being the half of the Joneses who is having doubts about this life of action and deceit (“Being a spy means lying,” he says, or something to that effect). Between the two couples (or the three couples, counting an extra featured pair from the cul-de-sac), the nagging crazy wife was an unwelcome trend, as were the weak emotional men who would show their feelings were it not for their wives. The jokes about tired suburban parents not having a great sex life got a little old, there were a few too many of them. Some of this lazy scriptwriting detracted from the film’s otherwise good humour.
While the film is something of a good time, it ultimately fails to effectively deliver its message, which seems to be that the suburbs provide an enviable lifestyle. It is refreshing that the comedic supervillain is not British or “European”, a vague and often lazy tactic undertaken by films since the beginning of time to reinforce the wholesome morals and enduring power of the elite American way.5 But, does it mean to equate the elite with the protean, high-class with mediocre, or is it trying to somehow represent the wholesome community structure of suburbia as an indestructible force on Earth? After all, Natalie is scornful that they’ve passed through thirty countries without exposing their marriage as a union of spies, yet they couldn’t even last one week in the suburbs without blowing their cover. You can’t fool those endearing simpletons in the suburbs, right? Don’t miss that one.
Films like this remind me of a proposition in Roland Barthes Mythologies: that of the shiny surface that “prepares and supports a major development in a cuisine of distinction: ornamentation.”6 If watching at home, watch through to the end; a lissome Jon Hamm in a tight rollneck sweater, a la Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief (1955), is very nice. In fact, everything in Keeping Up With the Joneses is pretty, but that’s just about all it is.