Joneses, The

The Joneses The Joneses The Joneses The Joneses The Joneses
By Patrick Z. McGavin
The first feature of Derrick Borte, a German-born, American-educated actor and artist, “The Joneses” has a sharp, fiendishly clever premise weighed down by a tone and attitude that goes alternately too soft and too hard. The movie glides by for long stretches with a sureness and ease, but it never attains the serrated edge or pessimism that registers as truly biting critique of class consciousness.

Borte worked on the script with Randy T. Dinzler, and their story desperately tries to yoke together the plastic consumer domestic idyll of “The Stepford Wives” with the insouciance and pop nihilism of “Heathers.” The set up is clever, the developing story involving, but the payoff is rote and predictable, as if the filmmakers were too afraid to make their already indefensible characters even more emotionally unflattering.

By the way it is impossible to write about the film without giving away the “tell,” so readers who want to come to the film fresh I’d advise skipping the next couple of paragraphs.

The movie opens, actually, not all that differently from Michael Haneke’s two versions of “Funny Games,” without the abrasive soundtrack, of overhead shots tracking a car as it moves through a suburban paradise dominated by an apparently unbound comfort and privilege.

“We’re going to do some serious damage here,” says the man, Steve Jones (David Duchovny), at the wheel. The rest of the passengers are his wife, Kate (Demi Moore), and two attractive young teenagers, Jennifer (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth).

The family is moving into their new lavishly appointed home in a gated community. The cars, the jewelry, are foreign, expensive and exquisitely crafted. The aura of entitlement is made obvious by the permanently golden light lining the massively imposing homes and perfectly manicured lawns.

The Joneses, like their names, are a bit bland and wholesome; they’re strivers with a fine sense of decorum and personal taste. And they are also a carefully calibrated “fraud.” They are in reality a deep cover cell, or unit, deployed by a stealth marketing company to bedazzle their neighbors and social set with their fabulously expensive custom golf clubs, widescreen televisions, foreign beer, art collections and exquisite interior design.

Their mission is aggressively simple. Drawing on their looks, sex appeal and dream life, the pretend family coolly insinuate themselves into the community's social nexus, the high school, the golf course, the beauty salons, to convince their widening circle to covet and eventually acquire the same possessions and consumers goods, whether they are able to afford them or not. They call it, calculatingly, the “ripple effect.”

(The great production designer Kristi Zea, a key collaborator in the films of Jonathan Demme, is a producer here.)

Borte works hard to subvert the typical suburban family patriarchy and the reversal here is that Kate is the real boss, an unsentimental, ambitious careerist who runs the operation with a military exactness. The somewhat vacant-eyed, desultory Steve is actually her sixth “husband,” a good looking though shallow former golf pro and car salesman who blanches at her emotional detachment. Naturally, he’s interested in the side benefits of the gig, and she’s all business. (Kate even interrupts when the knockout “daughter,” with her penchant for older men, tries to make a move on him.)

Each member of the unit has their areas of expertise, and they are judged purely on their performance. Their handler (Lauren Hutton, taking it all just a bit too seriously) informs Kate she wants to discard Steve and put somebody more ruthless in the position, but Kate fights that, and he is given a two-month reprieve to boost his sales operation. Taking the initiative, on the belief it will open up his chances to have a traditional relationship with Kate, Steve turns into the very thing he despises, a slick operative without conscience who achieves his own windfall.

For about two-thirds the running time, “The Joneses” operates on a wave of hedonistic, guilty pleasure. (Steve has a line about Tiger Woods that is priceless, given Duchovny and the golfer are obviously the most notorious “sex addicts,” currently on view.)  The characters are slick and self-regarding, but they are also too shallow and vain to take too seriously.

The young adults are mostly cast to the side, and that’s a mistake. The sexy, sultry Heard is impressive in an underwritten part, but it is typical of the missed opportunities of the filmmakers they refuse to examine how much more alert kids are about social divisions and economic stratification. They’re turned into stick figures; she’s a sexual provocateur, he’s sexually confused.

In the last third, the cautionary aspect of the movie takes hold and the movie gradually, emphatically, turns less interesting. The story holds the corollary that the family’s rapid rise must be accompanied by somebody else’s nasty fall. The suckers are provided, far too easily, in the form of their next door neighbors, Larry (Gary Cole) and Summer (Glenne Headly).

These are both excellent actors (key ensemble members of the great Chicago theater collective Steppenwolf), but they’re so condescendingly drawn and contrasted their desperation and comeuppance is telegraphed with a bludgeoned ferocity. (Borte even rips off the famous underwater shot from Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter”).

The movie could be read as an elaborate metaphor for acting; one of the characters even acknowledges the freedom and liberation that comes from constantly changing your identity or living behind a mask. But it’s not really thought through in any meaningful way (like say, Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York”).

Speaking of which, another Kaufman, George S., famously observed that satire is what closes on Saturday night. If that is the filmmakers’ reach, it does not plunge very deep.  As far as irony, Moore has recently taken to hawking the very similar designer products and self-improvement brands central to the movie’s narrative.

The cynical observer is more inclined, perhaps, to read “The Joneses” as a studied justification for movie product placement. Whatever pleasure or excitement is derived is disposable and skin deep.