It’s hard not to envy the Joneses, and that’s the whole point of a new film skewering consumerism.
Imagine a family who always have the latest stuff — the coolest car, the sweetest golf clubs, and the trendiest clothes.
Wouldn’t you want to be like them? Or at least shop where they shop?
The Joneses imagines just such a scenario, giving us a faux family who exist simply to advertise products to their neighbors.
It’s the ultimate stealth marketing campaign — and a way to slam consumerism gone wild.
In an age of reboots, remakes, and sequels, The Joneses boasts a rigorously original story. And, blissfully, we don’t get a lecture every 10 minutes on the evils of having a big screen TV or fancy car. The story weaves its messages deftly into the narrative, and while it’s impossible to miss the big picture — spending on luxury items is bad, especially for those who can’t afford them — it’s also delicate in its execution.
David Duchovny and Demi Moore star as Steve and Kate Jones, a handsome married couple who move into a new neighborhood along with their equally perfect teen children. They’re a couple right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, except Steve and Kate still smooch like newlyweds.
But it’s all an act.
The “family” is a team of salespeople thrown together to sell products. When Steve hits the links he tells his golf buddies about the great new clubs he just picked up. Kate invites her neighbors over for a swanky party and confesses her scrumptious appetizers are actually from a frozen food company — available now at your local supermarket.
Kate is the boss, a veteran marketer who knows what it takes to boost their sales figures. But Steve isn’t quite sold on the concept, and sometimes when he’s playing the doting husband some real emotions surface.
The Joneses works best when it shows how flaunting the right necklace, dress, or sports car can help you gain friends in a hurry. The children of the family don’t suffer any growing pains in their new high school. Instead, they’re instant icons, beloved for their good looks and sharp sartorial choices.
The Joneses starts with satirical snap, but the film quickly falls into generic story arcs. Daughter Jenn (Amber Heard) is attracted to older, unavailable men. And son Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) has a secret beyond the fact that he’s taking part in a fictional family.
While the film doesn’t boast an overtly political theme, it does suggest that we’re helpless in the face of a strong marketing campaign, unable to resist the siren song of the latest, greatest product.
So much for free will.
Gary Cole and Glenne Headly play the Joneses’ hapless neighbors, a couple who can’t measure up to the new family on the block. Headley’s character listens to motivational tapes to spark her makeup business. To the filmmakers, she’s the embodiment of Americans who can’t compete in our capitalistic system.
Meanwhile, Cole’s character simply wants to duplicate his neighbors’ excesses — no matter the cost.
Some people, it would seem, simply aren’t cut out to hang with the free market.
The quasi-romance at the heart of the film doesn’t resonate as deeply as it should, and the teen characters are too underdeveloped to matter. Do they have conflicted emotions about their gig? Why or why not?
But Duchovny’s chronically dry wit couldn’t be more perfectly suited for Steve. The erstwhile Mulder draws out the most laughs with his sardonic line readings. Moore can do chilly in her sleep, but she’s just as effective when revealing flashes of humanity — and loneliness.
The narrative deftly skirts some of the technical issues involved in such a scam — are there other companies offering the same services? How do they get around identity issues regarding school admission? Is this company even legal?
We also miss out on some potentially clever subplots. Wouldn’t it be fun to see a fellow fake Dad trying to sell Steve on a new golf club? How very meta it might have been.
Instead, The Joneses safely examines the toll consumerism takes on the Joneses, as well as their neighbors.
The ageless Lauren Hutton appears in a few brief scenes as the head of the mysterious company which assembled the Joneses to sell their wares. She represents unfettered capitalism — slick and beautiful, cold and calculating. She doesn’t give a darn about the impact her company has on the lives of others.
It’s sharp casting, but it’s also a hint as to the meaning writer/director Derrick Borte wants his film to leave behind.
It’s a shame that the bold concept of The Joneses begets a mostly conventional treatment storyline, but it‘s still smarter than your average film, and far more likely to provoke post-movie discussions.
That, in and of itself, is a treat.