Talking Movies

October 21, 2016

Keeping up with the Joneses

Director Greg Mottola returns to cinemas for the first time since Paul, but working with inferior material to his recent Rogen, Pegg, and Sorkin scripts.

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Jeff Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis) is an ineffectual HR drone who is genially disregarded by all the people with security clearance at major weapons manufacturer McDowell-Burton International. His wife Karen (Isla Fisher) is dissatisfied designing an absurd bathroom for obnoxious neighbours the Craverstons (being a largely wasted VEEP star Matt Walsh as Dan and Maribeth Monroe as Meg). As the Gaffneys agonise over how to utilise their sons’ time at summer camp to revitalise their marriage new neighbours arrive; the uber-stylish uber-sophisticated Joneses, Tim (Jon Hamm) and Natalie (Gal Gadot). Jeff is surprised at Tim, the travel writer who blows glass sculptures as a hobby, befriending him. But Karen grows suspicious that Tim and Natalie are actually spies, and when Jeff takes his concerns to MBI security officer Carl Pronger (Kevin Dunn), the Gaffneys enter the sinister world of ‘The Scorpion’.

What exactly is Greg Mottola, director of Arrested Development, The Newsroom, Superbad, Paul and Adventureland, doing helming this action-comedy? This is the comediocre terrain of hack auteurs like Shawn Levy or (shudder) Paul Feig. Mottola has some fun playing on the remarkable coincidence that Gadot & Hamm are both 7 inches taller than their counterparts Fisher & Galifianakis. There’s a lot of looming… It’s a treat to hear Gadot berating Hamm in rapid-fire Hebrew insults, but there’s not a whole lot else going on. Mottola shoots action with pleasing commitment to practical stunt-work, and throws in gleefully parodic action-hero slo-mo and hero shots of Gadot and Hamm, but the lack of any real driving comedic intent is almost metatextually reflected in Andrew Dunn’s cinematography being remarkably soft-focus; as if he was massaging out the cast’s wrinkles in Murder, She Wrote.

Michael LeSieur’s screenplay is a strange beast, and it’s hard to see what in it attracted Mottola. This film is obviously in debt to Mr & Mrs Smith, and even that had longueurs, but Keeping up with the Joneses lacks that movie’s over-arching sense of fun; which kept the wheels spinning when there were no actual jokes. Here LeSieur has very few actual jokes at all, and, in sending Jeff on trips to exotic snake restaurants with Tim, slips into what feels like a tip of the hat to David Duchovny’s intermittently interesting satire The Joneses; where perfect new neighbours are actually a guerrilla sales team. Depressingly early on you realise this is another major studio comedy that has tidy plotting and neat character arcs, and basically no jokes. When exactly did that approach to writing ‘comedy’ become conventional wisdom?

Keeping up with the Joneses just about holds the attention, but given the calibre of talent involved you just wonder how nobody noticed that it wasn’t actually … funny.

1.5/5

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September 8, 2010

The Runaways

Twilight co-stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart re-unite for a biopic of 1970s all-girl rawkers The Runaways featuring a number of classic songs, by other bands…

Writer/director Floria Sigismondi’s opening image of a drop of menstrual blood falling on the ground, as an unprepared Cherie Currie (Fanning) dashes to a toilet during her first period, promises an innovative feminist rock flick. Instead we cruise along the boulevard of rock cliché as singer Cherie finds booze and pills the only way to handle the sudden transition from miming Bowie at school talent shows to rocking Japan after she joins Joan Jett (Stewart) in The Runaways. Jett is the feminist, refusing her patronising teacher’s insistence that she remain unplugged and learn ‘On Top of Old Smoky’, “I know you play ‘Smoke on the Water’. Teach me that one!”, but both girls are barely characterised beyond facile pop-psychology about flakey fathers driving them to rock.

Fanning and Stewart wring substantial emotion from the weak material but against these blankly inarticulate girls, Whip It! star Alia Shawkat is literally silent as ‘the bassist’ for legal reasons, Michael Shannon has little trouble in stealing the film as their mentoring (and deranged) producer Kim Fowley. He even articulates the trangressiveness of Fanning’s performance by exclaiming “Jail-f******-bait, Jack-f******-pot!” on learning Cherie is 15. Just in case you didn’t get the in-camera apology Jett later complains that Cherie will ruin them on their Japanese tour by performing in a Cabaret style suspenders and corset outfit. Sigismondi frustratingly alternates between such sledgehammer subtlety and elliptical dreaminess. Lines like “Girls don’t play electric guitar” herald ‘This is a Man’s World’ on the soundtrack, while she hilariously literalises endless critical ramblings about the homoerotic attraction between singers and guitarists by having a dreamy love scene between Cherie and Jett soundtracked by The Stooges’ ‘I wanna be your Dog’. This incident is then never mentioned again as Cherie goes back to sleeping with their roadie.

Such inconsequential vagueness afflicts everything. The impression that Cherie quit mid-way through recording their debut album and that 8 months later the band imploded having only had fleeting success in Japan is totally wrong, but this is a film where you never see The Runaways hang out with The Sex Pistols at CBGB’s, you just see Joan spray-painting Sex Pistols on her t-shirt while their music plays. Sigismondi’s biggest problem is that while The Runaways paved the way for The Bangles and L7 their music has been justifiably forgotten. ‘Cherry-bomb’ is the only song they perform here which rises above being merely efficiently crunching mid-1970s hard rock and Jett plucking out the riff of her solo hit ‘I Love Rock and Roll’ only emphasises that. There is a trio of fine performances at the heart of this film but like the band this film may be classified ‘important’ rather than good.

2.5/5

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