The descriptor “high concept” is so often bandied about by critics that it’s become a cliché, but there’s no better way to frame The Joneses, from writer-director Derrick Borte. Fortunately, the concept the picture employs is a pungent one, aptly applied to a consumerist world. It’s out there but plausible, a logical extension of the steadfast drive toward invasive targeted marketing that’s a hallmark of an age in which everything and everyone has a price.
The immaculately attired, catalogue-caliber handsome Jones family, newly arrived to a resplendent mansion in a tony suburb, seems too perfect to be true. And, as we learn when “daughter” Jenn (Amber Heard) strips and fondles “dad” Steve (David Duchovny), they are. Professional salespeople, recruited to form a faux clan, their job is to fan out among their neighbors and push as many goods, high and low end, as possible.
Steve sets his sights on the big spenders at the golf course. With her luxury furnishings and designer wardrobe, “mom” Kate (Demi Moore) goes after the housewives. Jenn and her “brother” Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) show up at the local high school and within minutes of screen time amass the large followings of icons.
Borte gets ample mileage out of the premise without heightening things to an absurd degree. Working in an observational mode, with actors and without a single talking head or statistic, he aptly expresses the subtle ways this mass, all-encompassing commodifying is destroying our collective sense of self.
It’s a wearisome burden, looking to products for self-validation, measuring one’s worth by the size of your bank account and proliferation of playthings. The film smartly strips the fun and the sexiness out of buying a sleek new car, or fancy tableware. In the second thoughts that begin to percolate within Steve, a newbie at this sort of operation, and the emasculation of next door neighbor Larry (Gary Cole) — who can’t keep up with the Joneses — the film adeptly draws out the sinister nature of such a superficially lavish lifestyle. The American Dream of 2010 is reformatted into a weighty albatross.
The picture does a less credible job of inspiring investment in the Joneses themselves, save for Steve, who Duchovny plays with enough regular guy charm to be an effective conduit for the audience’s sympathies. Yet the other family members are so painstakingly picturesque the movie might not work as well were they to reveal an otherwise hidden third dimension, suddenly spouting off about literature and politics. These are people who must live in and love a soulless world driven by consumption, with home and work, the personal and the professional combined in an unwieldy mess. They are the characters they play.
Visually, the movie further expands on that essential notion. Operating with a straightforward, glossy exterior, presenting a glamorous milieu shot with an advertiser’s fetishizing lens, the movie looks like the cinematic version of one of the Joneses’ products. A sly, smart satire, however, is buried therein. The Joneses frames us as prisoners of our desires, trapped in a world of our own making.
The Upside: The movie is centered on a clever premise that effectively comments our society’s obsession with products.
The Downside: It’s hard to care too much about the plight of the Joneses.
On the Side: The Joneses is Derrick Borte’s feature filmmaking debut.