While the action is a key element of Keeping Up With The Joneses, the film always puts comedy and romance front and center.
Screenwriter Michael LeSieur found inspiration for his screenplay Keeping Up With The Joneses from some friends’ idyllic lives in a suburban cul-de-sac—a street closed at one end.
“It was similar to the one in Keeping Up With The Joneses, and my friends could not have been happier living there,” says LeSieur.,
LeSieur was also intrigued by husband-and-wife super-spies, such as those depicted in films like Mr. and Mrs. Smith—and by a married duo he envisioned living across the street from such a stealthy couple.
“It was like they had discovered paradise. It’s so endearing and funny that people could find that much happiness in something that simple.”
“I kept wondering, what this average husband-and-wife would think about all the craziness going on in the spies’ house. There’s a whole other movie going on from the neighbors’ perspective. I started thinking about that and combining it with some aspects of the lives of my friends living on their beloved cul-de-sac.”
An ordinary suburban couple (Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher) discover it’s not easy keeping up with their impossibly gorgeous and ultra-sophisticated new neighbors, the Joneses (Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot) – especially when they discover that Mr. and Mrs. “Jones” are really covert operatives and find themselves in the center of a storm of international espionage that will give them a breathtaking glimpse of life “outside the cul de sac” — and will show both couples what “being a good neighbor” really means.
Director Greg Mottola, whose previous films include the hit comedy Superbad and the critically-hailed Adventureland, also sparked to that juxtaposition, while noting that LeSieur’s screenplay brought to mind Billy Wilder’s classic 1960 comedy The Apartment and the 1945 romantic drama Brief Encounter from David Lean.
As Mottola explains, “Wilder co-wrote The Apartment after seeing Brief Encounter, which depicts a love affair between a married woman and a married man, and whose liaisons take place in a friend’s apartment. Wilder saw that movie and wondered about the guy who lends his apartment to people having illicit affairs. I thought that was a fun way to tell a story.”
Mottola credits LeSieur’s style and approach as another major draw. “I like Mike’s writing a lot. He tends not to create just jokes and one-liners; Mike writes real characters and has a dry and sometimes absurd sense of humor. Keeping Up With The JoneseS has its own distinctive character. It felt like a comedy/character movie disguised as a high-concept idea, and that’s the kind of story I love most.”
Even before Mottola came aboard the project, LeSieur had successfully pitched it to producers Laurie Macdonald and Walter F. Parkes, whose many credits include Gladiator, Minority Report and the Men in Black films.
“I think Walter responded to the contrast between the suburban couple, living this boring life, and this fantastic, sophisticated, well-traveled couple that is moving into a neighborhood to which they don’t seem to belong,” says the screenwriter. “The wife is suspicious of the new neighbors, but the husband is thrilled to have these exciting people living nearby. It’s a rich premise.”
Parkes and Macdonald add that they also sparked to the idea of a suburban couple who, says Parkes, “desperately wants to be friends with their neighbors. This connection provides a recognizable and emotional foundation for a high-concept comedy—that the film wasn’t just about playing the gag.”
While comedy gold is mined from the chasm separating the two couples’ lifestyles, demeanor and professions, there is indeed an important commonality between the two pairings: the Gaffneys eventually learn that the picture-perfect Joneses share the same kinds of problems endemic to their union—and to virtually all marriages.
Jeff Gaffney is one of those guys, says Zach Galifiankis, who “puts a positive face on everyone and everything, so it’s fun to watch him lose it when faced with real danger. I loved playing a character that starts coming unraveled, thanks to the spies he’s becoming friends with.”
LeSieur gave Jeff that job because it not only added another comedic and relatable dimension to the character, it had a familial connection to the screenwriter. “I really admire people who have a job that no one else wants, yet they’ve found a way to love it and do it to the best of their ability. Then, of course, we juxtapose that with Tim Jones, who works as a spy, which you think people would love, but he has all kinds of issues with it.”
LeSieur then relates that his grandfather worked on the Manhattan Project—in Human Resources. “He literally had no idea they were making an atomic bomb. He just went to work and did his HR stuff. When I asked him about knowing almost nothing about the project that was employing him, my grandfather answered, ‘we knew only that it was top secret and that we were happy to have a good job, and we didn’t ask.’ That story always fascinated me.”
Jeff’s troubles really begin at home, with his wife Karen. He certainly loves his family and wants to re-charge his marriage. But, says Mottola, “Things have to get a little worse for the Gaffneys before they can improve.”
“Karen is a designer but until she met the Joneses, she hadn’t really figured out her true calling,” says LeSieur. “She’s been searching for it and then discovers she’s pretty skillful at this espionage stuff. In another life, Karen might have been a good secret agent.”
The filmmakers note they were lucky to get Oswalt, who, says LeSieur, was a perfect choice to embody the character’s “weird energy of an engineer who went rogue and started selling military secrets.” That actor-character synergy and surprise was evident in early screenings. As LeSieur recalls, “When Patton as Scorpion first appears, you can feel the audience collectively learning forward. Like, ‘ooh, this is going to get interesting.’”
While the action is a key element of Keeping Up With The Joneses, the film always puts comedy and romance front and center. During early screenings, LeSieur was gratified by the laughs and by “moments where you can feel the audience connecting emotionally with the movie. That’s as satisfying as getting a big laugh, for sure.”
“We didn’t design the movie to just machine-gun jokes all the time,” concludes Mottola. “The humor, action and romance are always grounded. These characters are meant to be recognizable, and I think audiences will really like them.”