Film Review: KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES (directed by Greg Mottola)

by Jason Rohrer on October 18, 2016

in Film

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THIS MOVIE HATES AMERICA

Recently I’ve been feeling pudgy and middle-class. I live in Encino, I drive a Toyota, I bake cookies as a hobby. I ate a Trader Joe’s lamb vindaloo for lunch yesterday and complained it was too spicy. I have always felt that people like this are broken and not to be emulated.

And this morning, when I could have used an entertainment that made me feel better about my life or inspired me to transcend it, I watched Keeping Up with the Joneses, a movie about suburban schlubs who make craft beer as a hobby, who find the vapid wasteland of big box culture a great place to live. These soccer parents don’t see their luxury existence as a function of the systemic commodification of white people with disposable incomes (there is no other kind in the picture). The story tells how their faith in the system gets reinforced when a much more attractive and accomplished couple moves in next door and kills a bunch of bad guys, and they get to help.

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This movie got made because Gal Gadot needs a bigger multiplex presence before the next Wonder Woman and because Jon Hamm just got out of rehab and because Greg Mottola worked with Hamm on an HBO thing and because Isla Fisher needs a job. And because Zach Galifianakis.

The movie opens Friday. Mottola directs, more or less, writer/producer Michael LeSieur’s dated, unfunny tropes, with lots of Mercedes product placement and rote local color – this high-espionage odd-couples exercise was shot in Atlanta. This movie tells the story of how the retail culture that cradles us in extended infancy also drops us on our heads:

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A brilliant engineer working for a military contractor hasn’t had a raise in five years. He’s developing national-security stuff, and his ambitious wife keeps telling him he deserves to maintain his king-of-the-cul de sac suburban existence. He needs more money, and the good life is his by right. He withholds sex from his wife as punishment for buying an SUV without consulting him. She cuckolds him the same day Corporate denies his request for a performance bonus. He calls a shady headhunter he met at a seminar and exchanges top secret material for a year’s salary. He covers his tracks by using the work computer of an annoying loser in HR. The engineer reconciles with his wife after she promises never to shop at Lord & Taylor again. They commit to a mutual rejuvenation; they sell their McMansion and sail to Bora Bora. They start a simple life renting out paddleboards to hipster tourists. The third week in paradise, their children are among 11 killed by terrorists using technology very like what the engineer stole. His wife hangs herself with an H&M scarf. Racked with guilt and shame, he uses his remaining cash to return to the States and track down data to establish that the secrets he traded were not those used against his family. He realizes it doesn’t make any difference. He is arrested for treason. At the end of the film he sits in a county jail holding cell, barefoot. A deputy pushes a cart stacked Foot Locker-style with Nike shoe boxes: Just Do It. The deputy says, “What size?”

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I made that up. None of that happens. Nothing happens. Keeping Up with the Joneses is actually about the HR guy; the engineer doesn’t have a character or a story. There are no real characters in this movie, no relationships, no aspirations, no revelations. What this movie has is a barbecue, two flashes of lingerie, and some jokes about how sex doesn’t take very long when you’re an emasculated piece of shit. Superhero spies treat the least interesting people you know to a couple of B-movie stunts: There’s one in a car, and then later someone falls into the pool.

This movie reminds me a little of the trailer for Date Night, except the trailer for Date Night was funnier than this movie, and the trailer for Date Night has yet to persuade me to see Date Night.

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Keeping Up with the Joneses is an off-the-cuff product, destined for Redbox. As such, it’s possible to view it as a glimpse of the Hollywood unconscious. In this sense, it is a perverse warning to maintain subservience. It does all it can to mock and belittle consumer culture, but betray the system in this movie and the CIA duct-tapes your family in their underwear and threatens them with genital torture and waterboarding. This is a vicious and potentially fascinating America, almost wholly unexplored by a writer with no apparent interest in his subject, indifferently shot by a director who has done much better work (Adventureland is very nice). Jon Hamm is charming when you’ve got nothing else to look at. And I wish Isla Fisher would catch half the breaks that have come to Zach Galifianakis.

photos courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Keeping Up with the Joneses
Twentieth Century Fox
USA | 2016 | 101 minutes | rated PG-13
in general release October 21, 2016
for information, visit Joneses

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