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

July 22, 2015

The Legend of Barney Thomson

Robert Carlyle makes his directorial debut as a boring Scottish barber who a couple of unfortunate accidents render prime suspect in a serial killer manhunt.

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Barney Thomson (Robert Carlyle) is, by his own narration, a boring man. So boring in fact that he’s about to be fired by Wullie (Stephen McCole) because nobody wants to get their hair cut by a man without any chat. Barney’s appeal to Wally’s father James (James Cosmo) hits the same brick wall – Barney’s personality, or lack thereof; “Standing over the customers like a haunted tree…” And then Barney has an unfortunate workplace accident, or two. Which happen to coincide with DI Holdall (Ray Winstone) and his sidekick MacPherson (Kevin Guthrie) getting increasingly desperate to find a serial killer before their Chief McManaman (Tom Courtenay) hands the case over to strident Robertson (Ashley Jensen). And when Barney’s formidable mother Cemolina (Emma Thompson) helpfully steps in, in her own demented manner, Barney finds himself being liked for a dismembering homicidal maniac.

The Legend of Barney Thomson begins promisingly. There are choice insults. A panicked Winstone flourishes a new lead to the press, then retreats to the toilets where MacPherson finds him slumped on the floor – “I lied. That’s why I’m in the shape of a frog.” But the insults don’t match those in Armando Iannucci’s VEEP; a show aware that verbal cruelty is enjoyable for about 25 minutes, but then becomes exhausting. The shrill shouting matches between Jensen and Winston are deeply unfunny, never seem particularly motivated, and, even for a black comedy, just bespeak superficial characterisation. Brian Pettifer’s extremely creepy turn as Barney’s ‘friend’ Charlie is equally bedevilled by totally random character beats, while Emma Thompson’s one-note turn as a hard-living 70-something Glaswegian is a piece of stunt casting amusing for as long as you find her aging-up inherently funny.

It feels like there’s a different, better comedy within this movie attempting to escape; the desperation of DI Holdall to escape the “vomit-lashed sh**hole” that his Scottish wife has connivingly dragged him to, a despair which informs his phone-call to a bookie: “Can you say that again, in English? Because I didn’t get a word you just said. Yes, I know you’re Scottish. Yes, I’m aware that I am up here.” Instead the focus is on Barney, played by Carlyle, via Jeremy Davies, with lots of nervous twitches. The cast gamely play the machinations of Barney, Cemolina, and Holdall, and there are amusing moments but it’s hard to care about such half-written characters. “This is f****** ridiculous” says Holdall when the plot reaches its final ridiculous twist, and his character, tiring of the film, is verbalising what the audience has already felt for some time.

The Legend of Barney Thomson is only 95 minutes long, and yet rarely can a film have worn out its welcome quite so fast.

2/5

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