All sizzle and not much steak, “The Joneses” (as in “keeping up with … “) supposes a world in which advertising is so pervasive, your next-door neighbors could be “stealth marketers,” hawking the latest in electronics, cars and booze, and subliminally directing you and your credit cards into the abyss. It’s not much of a stretch, actually, and given the state of the as-yet-unrecovered economy, Derrick Borte’s writing-directing debut may be the feel-bad movie of the season. Low-wattage star power (David Duchovny, Demi Moore) may brighten the film’s prospects, but in the end, profligacy is just so (early)-2008.
Serving as its own metaphor, “The Joneses” is set in an upscale suburb (the pic was shot in Atlanta) where a “sales cell” has taken up residence in a mini-McMansion, The decor of said home — the entrance to which looks like the cover of a Pier 1 catalog — is only slightly less artificial than the “family” inside: Steve (Duchovny), Kate (Moore), Jenn (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth), all of whom have major problems, not least of which is Jenn’s nymphomania (which has her climbing into Steve’s bed on the first night).
None of these people are related, save for a shared amorality that encompasses lying, cheating and commercial espionage. None of them have any redeeming qualities, except Steve, who’s new and still harbors some sense of decency — which, of course, raises the question of how he got in this to begin with. But it’s just one of the movie’s mysteries — a chasm over which the viewer must make a gigantic leap of faith, followed by a twisting backflip over everything else that doesn’t make sense.
If “The Joneses” were pure farce, which it isn’t, Borte could have gotten away with a lot. Likewise, the pic might have succeeded if it were all a bit funnier and a little less mean-spirited about spending, debt and envy. (The reason successful social satire is so rare is the human propensity for preaching.) It’s clear from the outset that the film is headed for that big redemptive moment in which everyone sees the light (or a glimmer, at least) and people realize that conspicuous consumption is no substitute for love, compassion or (cue the organist) family. When those moments of clarity arrive, the musical accompaniment fills the viewer’s ears with maple syrup.
Lauren Hutton has a few good moments as KC, the mastermind behind what Kate, Steve and their “progeny” are perpetrating against the neighborhood (personal responsibility not being a big theme here). But one does wonder how such a scheme would play out: How would the children be registered at school? Who would the mysterious marketing company have bought the house from, and why wouldn’t someone have spilled the beans? And how would so many well-off people not have a clue about a family that has so much, despite no visible means of support? Especially Larry (Gary Cole), the next-door neighbor whose wife, Summer (Glenne Headley), is sort of the local Amway dealer (although her product is holistic pharmaceuticals), and who really needs a friend. What he gets is Steve — no wonder he’s miserable.
Duchovny isn’t stretching here, but he’s charming as Steve, the conscience of the piece. Moore, whose innate iciness is perfect when Kate is the true believer, is less successful when the character is thawed and thinking. Hollingsworth does a nice enough turn as the closeted Mick, but Heard more or less steals the show, mixing sexiness with a caustic attitude that personifies, even better than Moore, the kind of personality that might become one of “The Joneses’ ” merchandising terrorists.
Production values are good all around, treacly music cues aside.