Title: The Joneses
Year: 2009
Genre: Drama
Play time: 
Director: Derrick Borte
Screenwriters: Randy T. Dinzler
Starring: Demi Moore, David Duchovny, Amber Hear

The number of commercial films peddling anti-consumerist, think-about-what’s-really-important-in-your-life messages is surpassed only by the frequency with which Hollywood takes bribes from marketers for product placement, often in those same movies. The theory, of course, is that seeing a brand in the hands of popular, attractive opinion leaders such as movie stars will make it more attractive to suckers like you and me. And of course, it does. Conveniently placed Audi-convertibles, high-tech mp3 players, and Pepsi-Cola don’t constantly and conveniently appear just so we can complain about them. They do it because it works.

Before becoming confused and veering in an ill-advised direction, The Joneses is a promising and very engaging satire of this deeply cynical principle. The title family, who as the film opens moves into a gorgeous mansion in a wealthy suburban community, is actually no family at all. Rather, they are stealth marketers: cool, good-looking, and naturally popular, they are to parade their new clothes, cell phones, and high-end frozen snacks around town, and thereby send sales skyrocketing. Such a campaign is called a “sell.” A sell lasts twelve months. After that, each member of the “family” is evaluated — strictly quantitatively, based on area revenues for their assigned products — and, unless deemed inadequate, move on to their next assignment.

It’s a clever idea, combining familiar notions of product placement and the sort of real-life undercover marketing efforts that have occasionally caused a minor uproar (remember Sony having its agents ask strangers on the street if they would mind taking a picture with their new Sony Ericsson camera phone?). The first half of The Joneses is compelling simply in showing the Joneses go about their jobs. Steve (David Duchovny), a failed golf pro in a past life, goes to the country club and makes miraculous shots with his brand-name golf clubs. Kate (Demi Moore) takes long runs in her stylish workout clothes, forms a gossip group at the hair salon, and throws a killer party. Mick (Ben Hollingsworth), the “son,” goes to school (is that legal?) and starts a cult around his car, his skateboard, and his iPod. Jenn (Amber Heard), the “daughter,” does the same with her make-up and hair. First-time director Derrick Borte sets a snappy pace, and DP Yaron Orbach makes the movie gleam as brightly as Steve’s rotating crop of sports cars.

The movie begins to lose its footing when it turns to the characters’ personal crises — or, worse, to those of the supporting players, who are strategically placed to illustrate the screenplay’s talking points. At first, this is fairly subtle: for a while, the film seems to be suggesting that these paragons of polished cool are as needy and insecure as the poor saps to whom they market wardrobe and golf clubs. Jenn breaks protocol by shacking up with a married guy in his yacht, and is crushed to find out that she’s merely his plaything; Kate’s only goal in life is to sell enough to attain coveted “Icon” status within the company. Everyone needs validation and yearns to feel special, including the people we put on a pedestal.

Fair enough. But not content to stop there, The Joneses soon takes to actively (and loudly) decrying its protagonists’ soulless, empty existence, asking us to care about whether Steve and Kate will leave this spiritually degrading job and run off together. For a variety of reasons, the romantic aspect of this fails — it feels undeveloped and arbitrary, with only Duchovny’s easy charm (Steve Jones is like a less burdened Fox Mulder) to make Steve and Kate’s relationship feel at all human. But more fundamentally, what a lame and provincial way to resolve such a unique and interesting story. Like a thoughtful science-fiction film that ends with a mindless burst of action, The Joneses‘ last-ditch appeal to romance convention is a disappointment.

Which is not to say that the movie ditches its thematic ambitions. To the contrary, it ramps up the anti-consumerist sentiment in the last half hour, mostly through a hilariously on-the-nose subplot involving the Joneses’ miserable neighbors (Gary Cole and Glenne Headly). If you had any doubt that turning your life into a materialistic quest to “keep up with the Joneses” is hollow and unfulfilling, this film will work overtime to convince you otherwise.

By the end of the film, the sly cleverness of the opening scenes is a distant memory, supplanted by a heaping dose of heavyhanded melodrama. If earnestness is the death of satire, The Joneses kills it a dozen times over. Someone else needs to take this concept and make a comedy that’s scathing and unflinching, and that doesn’t turn to mush.


Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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