Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Keeping Up With The Joneses (2016) - Movie Review

Wow, I have not been looking forward to this one, more so than possibly any other film this year aside from God’s Not Dead 2. The reason why is down to two simple words: Isla Fisher. To the rest of the world, Isla is the woman married to Sacha Baron Cohen and one of the few Australian actresses that has all but completely assimilated into the Hollywood food chain. To us here in Australia, she’s the amazingly annoying redhead who flooded our screens with ads for ING. No joke, she had a “turn your phones off” bit that was a) irritating beyond all human reason and b) shown in front of about 90-95% of the films I saw last year. That’s close to 200 times that I had to hear her screech about how her phone ringing ruined her “perfect” take. Needless to say, I now have an irreparable hatred for Isla Fisher and, as a result, I am really not looking forward to seeing her on-screen again in any capacity.

The plot: Jeff (Zach Galifianakis) and Karen (Isla Fisher) are an ordinary couple in a suburban cul-de-sac, finally getting some time to themselves now that their sons are at camp. However, their quiet life is about to get shaken up with the arrival of new neighbors Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot). They appear to be ordinary, if somewhat well accomplished, suburbanites, but it seems that they aren’t all that they appear and, whether they like it or not, Jeff and Karen are along for the ride.

The cast here, despite my own prejudices going into the thing, are actually pretty solid overall. Galifianakis has the affable working schlub down pat and works within that frame. Fisher ends up being the most proactive of the coupling, and as obnoxious that she is, I have to give credit that she is as game for the nonsense on screen as she is. Hamm, rather than embodying his name, brings a lot of grounding to the film as the willing but weary agent. Honestly, more so than Fisher, it’s Hamm who makes the best coupling alongside Galifianakis. Gadot, while doing a good job at personifying how modern-day espionage is seen (read: torture is always justified), brings a bit of doubt into how well she’ll work out in the upcoming Wonder Woman solo film. Might seem like a tangent, but quite frankly, I don’t want to see another iteration of the character who is willing to torture her captors and with how well she handles it here, I can’t help but think of it as a possibility. There’s also the big bad who, in recurring fashion, is played by a surprise cameo. I won’t spoil it here, but the main villain does a lot to help with the deconstructionist themes of the narrative.

There is a very specific feeling that comes with watching some of the worse comedies out there, especially in cinemas. It’s that feeling when jokes are being told, and you can clearly tell that no-one (least of all yourself) is laughing. Short of literal death, it is the single worst feeling a human being can succumb to and, unfortunately, it’s a common occurrence throughout the first third of the film. Now, judging by my own sensibilities when it comes to comedy (going by my previous reviews, at least), most of these sorts of films require a bit of time for me to properly get into. However, it’s not every production that makes that climb this painful to sit through.

But once it does pick up, it actually makes for some really nice moments. Particularly when it comes to the juxtaposition that fuels the entire film, that being domestic drama vs. spy drama, something that the film makes some nice points about. For starters, there’s the surface comparisons about how, despite how exciting the job description may be, it can still be taxing on the people involved. In the bar scene with Jeff and Tim, the writing gets surprisingly poignant in between all the thinly-veiled interrogating. That combined with an admittedly awkward scene of Karen and Natalia in a changing room, which somehow isn’t nearly as sexy as it sounds, makes some nice sentiments about relationships. And then there’s the below-the-surface commentary on how Hollywood portrays espionage as opposed to the real world. While our heroes(?) are trigger-happy and quite willing to torture to get information (no, that still isn’t any easier to sit through), the bad guys turn out to be a lot more blue-collar than a film like this would anticipate.

So, with all this talk about contrasting the doldrums of suburban life with the more high-octane thrills of an action narrative, I can’t be the only one being heavily reminded of that other film Galifianakis was in not that long ago. In fact, the basic mechanics of the plot make it nearly impossible for me not to bring up the similarities. I mean, as much as I appreciate this film’s subtler writing moments, it’s not quite enough to shake the feeling that it’s been too soon since I last saw this film. One of my bigger philosophies when it comes to film-going, and one of the main reason for the existence of my yearly movie lists, is that the mindset behind going to a film is basically a matter of comparison. When you only have so many times a year that you can go out and see a movie (both for monetary and scheduling reasons), it’s important to have at least a general idea of what you’re about to watch so that as little as possible is wasted. So, what happens when two films are released in close proximity to each other that have certain distinct connections to each other? Well, quite honestly, stick to the earlier one; that one may have been another slow climb to funny, but it didn’t hurt quite as much on the way there.

All in all, while the writing is surprisingly good in places and the actors are well-cast and make the most of their material, there’s no escaping the fact that this supposed ‘comedy’ is largely removed from anything humourous for way too much of the film. Smart subtext isn’t enough to save a film that’s trying way too hard to be funny and mostly failing. No, this film didn’t make me hate Isla Fisher any more than I already do (then again, that in and of itself would be a herculean task), but I’m not exactly at the point of defending her here either.

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