It might strike some as the ultimate irony. A pair of high-wattage movie stars — Demi Moore and David Duchovny — featured in a film that punctures the idea of keeping up with the Joneses. Movie stars, after all, are our communal, envied mass-media neighbors. The people with the taut bellies and Architectural Digest homes and copious bling we devour in tabloids and on movie screens.
The Joneses, despite starring Moore and Duchovny is, nevertheless, a slyly entertaining, slick, and thought-provoking ride.
The film cuts to the heart of much of what ails America. Gun violence, drugs, the dissolution of the family, and the economy have all been blamed for the corrosion of American life. But in The Joneses, the corrosion closer to home is consumption: the belief that we are always one weed eater/facelift/McMansion/CD away from happiness.
Kate (Moore) and Steve Jones (Duchovny) appear, on the surface, to be Ken and Barbie-perfect dreamboats. They have svelte good looks, money to burn, and all the goodies that come with success: an amazing home, technological gadgets galore, a dream kitchen, and (most valuable of all) hours to while away at the spa, play golf, or speed walk around the neighborhood.
But if the Joneses appear too good to be true, they are. In fact, Kate and Steve and their two very good looking teenage children Jenn (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) are implants: embedded marketers. Their job, as the newest, prettiest residents of their upscale suburb, is to subliminally pimp a raft of products from golf clubs to jogging suits, video games to frozen foods. Their neighbors, naturally, want to down any sushi or buy any nine-irons that the beautiful Jones are downing or swinging. Director/writer Derrick Borte has tapped into a genuinely troubling dimension to the current subliminal style of marketing, from viral ad campaigns to products implanted into movie story lines. We are perpetually, often without even knowing it, being marketed to.
The faux-family’s sales goals are tracked by a whip-cracking manager named KC (a paragon of ’70s-era beauty and sex appeal Lauren Hutton), who breezes into their fancy subdivision (the film was shot in an upscale gated community in Alpharetta, outside of Atlanta) to introduce new products and admonish her team to get their numbers up.
There is something nefarious in the entire enterprise, not only because the Joneses are hiding their true intentions, but also because part of doing their job correctly involves befriending their neighbors in order to sell them things. The most troubling dimensions of the job are illuminated when Steve bonds with a squirrelly, eager to please, impressionable neighbor Larry (the always appealing Gary Cole), who dives headfirst into Steve’s campaign to buy, buy, buy, but without the funds to back it up. Larry is anxious to please his fragile wife Summer (Glenne Headly), to reward himself, and to impress Steve. The results of his spending sprees are unpleasant. Other members of the Jones “household” have issues too. Promiscuous Jenn, who in an earlier scene tried to seduce her “father”, develops a relationship with a married man, and Mick exposes a little too much of himself in his dealings with the local teenagers. A certain highly calibrated soapy tone begins to infuse the film. A rift arises in the Jones family, between super-seller Kate, who sees her job as just business, and Steve, whose conscience begins to eat at him as he sees how disastrously his neighbors have emulated him. But as the story winds down, The Joneses trades critique for the deliver of a too-obvious message and a wobbly, hysterical ending that insults the audience’s intelligence.
The Joneses has a surface slickness and topicality that recalls another exposé of dark doings in suburbia, 1975’s The Stepford Wives, in which husbands replace their spouses with obedient, perfect robot trophy wives. The premise is utterly cheesy, paranoid even. But it speaks, in a sensationalist way, to some of the true pathogens of American society: The desire, in the case of The Stepford Wives, for an unobtrusive, conciliatory, and sexually available wife and in the case of The Joneses, for an endless supply of new and better toys.