It’s a bloody shame that a man as effortlessly debonair in a suit as Jon Hamm should be relegated to playing a joke spy in a merely genial comedy that aims for baseline competence, and no higher. Hamm does his best to carry the bulk of “Keeping Up With the Joneses” on the strength of his considerable charm, but the spy comedy is a well-worn subgenre — even this year, which also saw the release of “Central Intelligence.” “Keeping Up With the Joneses” does little to distinguish itself from the horde.
Relying wholly on good casting and the charisma of its actors, big and small, to elevate too-familiar material, the film’s stale humor hinges on two faulty premises: That the suburbs are inscrutable and that the people who live in them are clueless.
Meet Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher), two daffy denizens of one well-kept Atlanta suburb. They’re middle-class, white-collar parents chasing the American dream in circles around their cul-de-sac.
Karen is a mother of two and interior design consultant, while Jeff whiles away his days in an HR office at MBI, a high-security aerospace company. He’s surrounded daily by actual rocket scientists, but he’s still the sort of hapless rube who pronounces “jalapeño” with a hard “j.”
Their supremely boring lives are given a goose with the arrival of a pair of sexy new neighbors, Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot). They hardly seem the cul-de-sac sort: Tim is a globetrotting travel writer fluent in Chinese, and Natalie is a drop-dead gorgeous social media maven with a professional food blog. While Jeff home brews beer and goes indoor skydiving in his free time, Tim blows his own glass sculptures.
Jeff plunges headfirst into a man crush (who could blame him), but Karen starts to notice and commit to memory oddities about the couple: that they bought their house in cash, sight unseen; the strange hours they keep; the empty spice jars in Natalie’s kitchen; that Tim seems to be asking Jeff an awful lot of questions about MBI.
It’s a tired formula, and like Natalie’s kitchen, it’s one lacking in spice. The movie doesn’t make it 10 minutes without deploying a poop joke (one of several). An extended slapstick sequence has Galifianakis swinging Fisher around like a ragdoll. Not once but twice the movie pulls the gag that a character can’t figure out how to hang up their cell phone for far too long. It even stoops to invent an excuse to have Gadot in lingerie for an entire scene, discussing Kegel exercises with Fisher and the respective tightness of their lady parts.
So that’s a bummer. What isn’t are the performances, especially Hamm as a soulful international man of mystery lending a touch of gravitas to what is otherwise a flighty affair. There’s also an inspired appearance by Patton Oswalt in an unexpected role that gives the film a jolt of adrenaline right when it needs it most.
It’s not enough to make “Keeping Up With the Joneses” a standout entry in the spy-comedy category, but it does elevate it to the sort of movie you’d do well to watch one day when you’re sick on the couch and too lazy to reach for the remote.
Barbara VandenBurgh, USA TODAY Network
Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Greg Mottola and written by Michael LeSieur. Rated PG-13 (for sexual content, action/violence and brief strong language). Running time: 101 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.