A wise person once claimed, "Comparison is the thief of joy" — sage words to keep in mind when worldly, gorgeous, impossibly perfect new neighbors move into the cul-de-sac, as they do in the action-comedy "Keeping Up with the Joneses." But these Joneses (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot) aren't exactly what they seem, and have more than a few surprises up their tailored sleeves.
But the biggest surprise of "Keeping Up with the Joneses" is the first credit that pops onto the screen at the end of the film: "Directed by Greg Mottola." For an action-comedy this shoddily schlocky, one doesn't expect to see the name of the director who helmed the comedy classic "Superbad" and the nuanced summer dramedy "Adventureland."
That's not to say that the film is necessarily without its merits, but it's wildly uneven, riding on a half-baked script by Michael LaSieur and the energetic efforts of star Zach Galifianakis. In concept, it's all there: Galifianakis as fuddy-duddy suburban dad Jeff Gaffney, the delightfully unhinged Isla Fischer as his wife, Karen; Hamm and Wonder Woman Gadot as their new super-sexy spy neighbors, Tim and Natalie. But there's something not quite right; this one needed more time in the oven.
It's a twist on the "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" concept that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie perfected back in 2005, but instead of hiding their top-secret lives of international espionage and covert operations from each other, the Joneses are trying to hide from their busybody neighbors. "We didn't last one week in suburbia!" Natalie explodes when their cover is blown by Karen and Jeff's overenthusiastic meddling.
For the Gaffneys, the Joneses are the kick in the pants to their marriage they didn't even know they needed. Consumed by work, family and community obligations, they've lost their senses of self and their marital passion, content to zone out to TV rather than experiment in the bedroom. Their sexual repression is an ongoing, nearly Freudian gag throughout.
Additionally, there are other interesting gender dynamics at play. Both Tim and Jeff are the more sensitive partners, sharing their vulnerabilities with honesty, while the women take to the fierce, ferocious warrior roles like they've finally been unleashed, physically and sexually.
The draw here is the chemistry of the performers, their personas bouncing around like atoms against each other creating energy — Hamm suave and sophisticated, Gadot exotic and strong, Fischer cute and neurotic, while Galifianakis does his dorky, lovable-coward routine. The rule here seems to be, If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
It's just that everything around them doesn't work. The editing is awkward, the pacing off — jokes don't land, action scenes are illegible. The in-between moments are the funniest bits, rapid-fire riffs or bits of physical comedy, but there's no time to enjoy them. The story takes too long to get going, and once the film finally starts to fire on all cylinders, it's over.
Hamm's character is unfortunately underwritten, caught in the no-man's land between Don Draper and a goofier comedic character. Galifianakis steals the show as the friendly fussbudget in a performance we've come to expect from him. The enormous potential on screen is tantalizing, which is why the disappointment of failed execution stings.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
'Keeping Up With the Joneses'
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, action/violence and brief strong language
Playing: In general release