Keeping Up With The Joneses

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When a movie takes its title from a tagline used to promote “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” I can’t help but walk into it with high expectations. Indeed, “Keeping Up with the Joneses” boasts a plot which quickly reminded me of “True Lies” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” in which government spies disguise themselves as ordinary suburban residents, and it has a cast of actors who you can always count on to give you a fun time. It’s even directed by the man who gave us “Superbad” and “Adventureland,” Greg Mottola. But while it does have some inspired moments, “Keeping Up with the Joneses” ends up feeling, to put it bluntly, half-assed.

We meet Jeff Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis) who works at a corporate office as a human resources director. He is happily married to Karen (Isla Fisher), and they have two children who, as the movie starts, are heading off to summer camp for a few weeks. For the first time in years, the Gaffneys have the whole house to themselves which has them thinking of all kinds of mischief to get into, but any plans they have for getting naughty are interrupted when a new couple moves into the neighborhood.

Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot) are not your usual couple as they look as if they have traveled all over the world, and they look far too gorgeous to pass as ordinary people. As a result, the Gaffneys get overly suspicious and are eager to learn everything there is to know about them. It doesn’t take long, however, to realize they are spies, but whether they are foreign or domestic spies remains to be seen.

“Keeping Up with the Joneses” gets off to a strong start as we get a picturesque view of suburbia with the peaceful neighborhood these characters inhabit. As the camera pans around the different houses, one of them blows up into smithereens, and the explosion almost feels like something out of a Kathryn Bigelow movie. Next thing you know, the story moves back to two weeks before the explosion, so we already know this peaceful neighborhood won’t be very peaceful for much longer.

The great things about the movie is the cast. Galifianakis gets to play a different role this time around as Jeff Gaffney is not like the mentally unstable characters he became famous for playing like in “The Hangover.” Seeing him play a down to earth guy who is all about family and good times feels like a stretch for him, and it’s fun watching him opposite Hamm especially when they have lunch at an underground restaurant which is definitely not for vegans.

Hamm gets to play on his sexy guy image, and he is well matched with Gadot who looks very comfortable in the action comedy genre. Isla Fisher has been great fun to watch in any movie she appears in ever since her scene-stealing turn in “Wedding Crashers,” and she doesn’t disappoint here. There’s also a nice pair of performances from Matt Walsh and Maribeth Monroe as a pair of neighbors who might be getting a little to nosy in everyone’s affairs.

But as terrific as this cast is, they are not enough to save this movie which runs out of inspiration very quickly. It would have been more fun if the director and screenwriter kept us guessing as to whether the Joneses really were spies or not. Looking back, I kept thinking everyone missed out on various opportunities to make this movie cleverer than it is. This could have been an uproarious comedy had more effort been put into the script. After a while, we know how things are going to turn out for the four main characters here, and it just reminds us of other movies like it which were much, much better.

When the movie reaches its conclusion, it’s sunk by a predictability everyone could have avoided for the benefit of the audience. What we are left with is a premise which everyone could have and should have had a lot more fun with. The characters, despite the best efforts of the actors, could have been better developed to where they don’t feel like caricatures. The action scenes are fun, but you feel like they could have been more thrilling. Instead of accepting the movie for what it is, we keep thinking about the movie it could have been, and realizing this is depressing.

“Keeping Up with the Joneses” is one those films I analyze endlessly as I watch it because I am convinced I could have done a better job with the material. This premise could have been taken in a number of different directions and could have ended up being an insane amount of fun. But we get instead is a motion picture which have spent more time in the development phase because this one came out of the oven far too soon. It has its moments, but it could have had a lot more of them.

* * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with John Jarratt on ‘Wolf Creek 2’

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It’s been a long time coming, but Australian actor John Jarratt finally returns to his famous role of serial killer Mick Taylor in “Wolf Creek 2.” When Jarratt first played this role back in the 2005 original, he succeeded in giving us one of the most terrifying psychopaths the world of cinema has ever seen. But at the same time, he also made Mick into one of the most amusing as well, and while watching him in this sequel you can’t help but laugh with him even as he becomes increasingly sadistic. Now he’s back to terrorize a new group of backpackers from other countries who don’t quite share his love for Australia.

I got to talk with Jarratt while he was doing press for “Wolf Creek 2,” and it was a real pleasure chatting with him. The sequel isn’t so much a horror movie as it is a thriller and a road movie, and Jarratt talked about the change in tone between the two movies. In addition, he also discussed how he based Mick Taylor on his father, how method he was in his approach to playing him, and of whether or not movies like this will affect tourism to Australia.

Ben Kenber: Thanks for another great performance as Mick Taylor. It was a lot of fun watching you play him once again.

John Jarratt: Thank you very much.

BK: You’re welcome. There was a long break between “Wolf Creek” and “Wolf Creek 2” (about eight years). Were there any changes for you in the way you portrayed Mick Taylor between the two movies?

JJ: No, not a bit. It was exactly the same. He’s not the kind of guy who has growth.

BK: That’s true. It was said you stayed in character during the making of “Wolf Creek.” Was this also the case on the sequel?

JJ: Not so much because I knew what worked, but you have to stay within the realms of it. You can’t be having a coffee and just fall back into John Jarratt and then some guy says, “Come over here and cut this person’s head off,” you know? So you’ve got to kind of stay in the zone if you know what I mean (laughs).

BK: But it’s not like Daniel Day-Lewis who stays in character 24 hours a day obviously.

JJ: No, I think that’s a bit of a wank, but anyway. With Mick Taylor, I tend to go a little bit method because he’s a psychopath and a serial killer, and it’s a long way from who I am, you know? So I have to work at that. People say you’re a method actor, and I just say I’m a professional actor.

BK: It was said that you based Mick Taylor on your father but that you filled in the evil bits because your father is clearly not evil. When it came to the evil bits, what exactly did you add?

JJ: Well if Mick Taylor wasn’t a psychopath and a serial killer, if he wasn’t bent, and if he was the guy you thought you knew at the hotel at the bar if you met Mick, that’s my dad. But like all serial killers he’s bent and everyone says, “He seems like such a nice guy and he’s a terrific fella. He’s quiet and he was a good neighbor and he’s mutilated 27 people, but…” The hard part for me was to find that part of Mick, that psychopath side, and find a way that he was comfortable with it, you know?

BK: Yeah. It reminds me of when Anthony Hopkins played Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” where he said he wasn’t so much interested in doing research on serial killers. Instead, he worked on finding the psychopath or the crazy person within himself.

JJ: Yeah.

BK: While the original was a full out horror movie, and one of the scariest and unnerving in recent memory, “Wolf Creek 2” is more of a thriller and a road movie. How did you feel about that shift in tone this time out?

JJ: In a way, sequels are lose, lose affair, you know? If we made it pretty much the same as the first one, you’d all be complaining about that we didn’t go anywhere with it. But if you change a little, then everyone says it’s not like the first one. To me, I thought it was a good movement on the first one. The first one you wait for the monster to come out of the cage which is about halfway through the movie, and it’s the set up that’s scary and then how he becomes (who he is) and everyone freaks out. With the second one we all know who he is, so it’s a waste of time doing that so you get them from the get-go. It’s not unlike the first one much when Mick turns up because, as you may remember in the first one, they (the unlucky tourists) drive my pick up over a cliff and then I chased them in a car and I blow the girl way, and that’s the end of the movie. So there’s a bit of chase in that one, but a hell of a lot more in this one because you get the Mick thing happening from the beginning rather than halfway through.

BK: The scene where Mick Taylor sends that big rig truck rolling down a hill where it crashes into Ryan Corr’s jeep gives “Wolf Creek 2” one of its best action sequences. Were you on the set when it was shot?

JJ: Yeah, I was there. It was fantastic (laughs). The funny thing was that the jeep came down the hill and landed like nothing had happened to it. We didn’t expect that, but it says a lot about the jeep I’ve got to say. Then the big truck comes down and creams it, and it was a great day. They were 20 cameras on it watching the truck come down the hill. In real life it was quite stunning.

BK: I imagine it was. If this was an American production, I bet they would’ve used CGI effects instead, but the fact that you did the real thing makes the sequence all the more thrilling to watch.

JJ: Yeah, it was great. It was like “Mad Max” days, you know? It’s what Aussies do really well.

BK: What would you say you added to this character that wasn’t in the script or which Greg McLean didn’t come up with?

JJ: I don’t think I added anything. He (McLean) was there for the entire film. There was more opportunity for a lot more humor I suppose, but I honestly didn’t add anything. I just knew a hell of a lot more, and I thought Mick was pretty funny in the first one. I think about 90% of this film is Mick as opposed to 50%. I think that’s the difference, I really do, so I didn’t do anything differently except you see even more of what he does. I suppose that’s different.

BK: The black humor in this movie is very clever.

JJ: Yeah, you’ve got to have a laugh. You got to remember that he (Mick) is having a ball and he’s got a great sense of humor. If you met him in a bar you’d think he was a lot of fun; he’s a big barrel of happy-go-lucky and a fun kind of guy. He’s having a ball playing games with these Pommy backpackers, so I think it lends itself to comedy.

BK: A lot of people might look at a movie like this as if it will decrease tourism to Australia, but I think it will increase it because people travel to different countries for a variety of reasons. What effect do you think “Wolf Creek 2” will have on tourism?

JJ: I tend to think that tourism improves with these kinds of films and “Crocodile Dundee” kind of films. If someone gets eaten by a crocodile in the northern territory in Australia, the tourist numbers go up from the publicity it gets. So I don’t think people will be frightened (from travelling there) really.

I want to thank John Jarratt for taking the time to talk with me. “Wolf Creek 2” is now available to own or rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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