REVIEW: Can The Joneses Keep Up with Its Own Premise?
A fantastic concept that frays under the rigors of narrative convention, the premise of The Joneses -- a pre-fab family unit is hired to infiltrate and market to an affluent suburban neighborhood -- sold half of Hollywood, attracting bucks and talent to the table. Yet as pointed out by David Foster Wallace, the man who envisioned entire calendar years being branded ("The Year of the Perdue Wonder Chicken" will never stop making me laugh), the obviousness of the target requires a more expansive execution: "We already 'know' U.S. culture is materialistic," he said. "This diagnosis can be done in about two lines. [The] engaging and artistically real how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn't have a price?" First-time writer/director Derrick Borte does make a bleakly viable case for an extreme strain of our materialism, but the film's attempt at a humanistic antidote diffuses its intriguing chemistry for the worse.
"We are going to do some damage in this town," Steve (David Duchovny) crows as he and his crew roll into Atlanta. It's an expression that calls to mind credit card blitzes and department store sprees, as it should, but Borte is also setting up the lessons he'll impart down the line. Installed in their perfectly ridiculous Tudor mansion, whose interiors are lined with the latest in Ethan Allen technology, the Joneses waste no time in graciously swindling their neighbors. Steve's fake wife Kate (Demi Moore) and their teenaged play-children Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) and Jenn (Amber Heard) present a perfect, unified front, mixing success (meaning money -- neither half of the couple seems to have a job), likability and self-deprecation into a potently American cocktail. As in so many films today, no product is left unplaced, a pointed gesture that winds up reinforcing the film's notion that Americans can't recognize when they're being marketed to anymore. The lighting and camera work caress every surface, giving this relatively low-budget film the Hollywood polish of that ultimate commercial machine: the romantic comedy.
All the Joneses have to do is live well and show off their toys, the implication being that the jealousy and covetousness of their fellow consumers will do the rest. They get massive per diems to blow around town and a steady stream of products to flak, quickly establishing themselves as the coolest thing you can be among your peers: an early adopter. "That sounds like something my parents would do," Mick's would-be girlfriend says when he drunkenly skirts his secret, saying they only throw parties to show off their stuff. And it's true: Borte does a sly job of summing up just how close we all are to living our lives as mini-marketing campaigns. From Steve's golf clubs to Kate's flip phone and the kids' cars and designer scarves, the insidious ease with which the Joneses do their jobs is one of the film's most dubious pleasures. Their first interaction with their neighbors, Larry and Summer (played by Gary Cole and Glenne Headly), is both completely natural and totally calculated: they invite them in and display their décor, serving a high-end beer. Summer, a hopeless amateur hawking crappy beauty products, is being used to wipe the floor and doesn't even know it.
Lauren Hutton drops by as the face of the shadowy marketing firm behind these familial deployments, and some fun is had with competing sales figures between the Joneses (Steve is new to the game, and a little behind; Kate is a cold-eyed veteran angling for "icon" status). But beyond a great opening half hour or so, Borte must contend with his characters as something other than the automatons they appear to be, and with the concept as either committed parody or sober moral awakening. Human frailties -- Steve is crushing on Kate, Jenn has a thing for married men, Mick is repressing his sexuality -- erupt, but with the exception of Duchovny, whose walking-yoga-pose warmth and amiable wit infuses Steve with more humanity than he deserves, the script fails to show us who these characters are or how they can live with themselves. Moore works as the ruthless striver, and gets a line or two about just doing this job until she figures out her life, but her bloodless response to the consequences of their actions -- Larry's attempts to keep up put his house in foreclosure, and worse is in store -- make her not just inscrutable but an unlikely candidate for Steve's affections.
So many elements of the film work well together that it's all the more disheartening to watch your investment start to tank. It may be that Borte's semi-parodic vision of America -- where there are only two kinds of people, the Joneses and the lemmings who want to be like them -- is too convincing for the film's consumerist parable ends, to say nothing of its romantic contrivance. Hell, I'd run away with Duchovny on the drop of a dime, and even I wasn't buying it.