At TIFF: The Joneses
At a glance, The Joneses seems like a can't-miss and must-miss proposition all at once: Filmmaker Derrick Borte's feature debut. A cast comprising Demi Moore as David Duchovny as the parents of a mysteriously affluent and happy exurban family (with next door neighbors played by Glenne Headly and Gary Cole). Ben Hollingsworth and shirt-allergic starlet Amber Heard as their kids. A semi-secret first-act plot twist and oddly vague plot details beyond that. Potential bidding-war fodder or gimmicky letdown. And after all that, The Joneses did wind up missing -- but only by this much.
Borte introduces the family in the glossy cocoon of their mini-SUV, on the road to somewhere anonymous with the promise of a new life. Truckloads of furniture, electronics and other perfectly arranged upper-middle-class appointments greet them; so do said neighbors, for whom the Joneses -- dad Steve, mom Kate, son Mick, and daughter Jenn -- present a receiving party too chipper and good to be true. Not to mention too quirky for Toronto; the aspirational-culture satire that follows might have been one of the more agreeable premieres out of competition in Park City next January.
Which ultimately isn't here or there. The Joneses takes its send-up seriously, contorting expectations with Steve's banishment from Kate's bedroom early on and a bracing bit of kink minutes afterward. It turns out the Jonses aren't quite the Joneses after all, but rather a highly trained cadre of marketing mercenaries assigned to sell the hell out of golf clubs, Audis, Stella Artois, flash-frozen sushi, and anything else their envious neighbors might acquire to (ahem) keep up. To that extent, Borte's film is both a stinging rebuke and knowing enabler of the movies' product-placement scourge, compounding the conceit in ways that ultimately elude his control and, perhaps, your tolerance.
But it is funny, thanks in large part to the slick, used-car-mercenary DNA coating Duchovny's every sales pitch (of which there are plenty) with wry irresistability. As the ambitious team lead/mama bear, Moore plays it mostly straight, volleying nicely either in singles with Duchovny or in doubles with him and the kids. Heard and Hollingsworth are given symbolic roles at most, themselves the easily scratched bargain accessories to Moore and Duchovny's hardened lifestyle snobs. Borte has a far better grasp on the love story here between Steve and Kate, establishing a singular take on the tired coworker-romance arc, all while dropping the conceptual ball when the family's secret starts to slip out.
Surely Borte must have known that latter disclosure is The Joneses' one moment that had to work more than any other, finally making its point about the true relationship between "great products and the people who want them," as Steve Jones says. And yet Borte isn't prepared to let his concepts or the brands speak for themselves as truly great products do -- whether movies, soft drinks, automobiles, or the beauty products Kate Jones offloads at her local salon while the fledgling, fraught cosmetics maven next door goes into foreclosure. A little more dramatic and dissatisfying climax will have to do for now, though give Borte credit for depicting arguably the festival's best death visual to date. (And remember as a point of comparison: This is the fest that brought you Zombie Yoko.)
Let's call that a boon for an asset that needs all the good news it can get. The Joneses may yet be a can't-miss Toronto sales prospect; it won't have to work nearly as hard as its subjects to find a buyer. But to find an audience? I don't know if it has what it takes for going door-to-door too far off the beaten path.