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The Joneses

Derrick Borte

The surface premise of The Joneses is that four attractive but unrelated people pose as members of the affluent Jones family in order to introduce their upscale neighbors not so much to new products as to fresh desires, or, more specifically, to one desire: to keep up with the Joneses, not only by owning the same stuff but by deploying it in the service of the same lifestyle. This desire can never be satisfied, because the Joneses will always be supplied with newer stuff. Most of this stuff is "quality" — engineered golf clubs and awesome videogame players — but some of it is glittering junk, slated for repositioning. Because the film is as sleek and burnished as a luxury-car spot, some viewers are bound to reject it no less adamantly than they spurn the allure of "consumer culture," and dismiss its quartet of principals as monsters engaged in a horrible enterprise. But even though the enterprise is indeed horrible, the faux-Joneses are not monsters. Like prostitutes everywhere, they're hapless victims of an iron law of human nature: living a pretend life never pays well enough to heal the abrasions.

Although The Joneses would have benefited from the shaping of a stronger hand, it is a provocative entertainment, thanks to very strong performances by Demi Moore and David Duchovny. Ms Moore's Kate Jones is an ambitious disciplined businesswoman who has obviously worked very hard for this, her first opportunity to manage a household for the product-placement outfit that has stocked her new house with Ethan Allen furniture. Kate's interest in holding her family together is not the right interest, but it is as strong as the real one might be. Like any mother, she has to worry about her kinds — just not for the same reasons. Attentive viewers will have a hard time not rooting for her. 

Kate's biggest gamble is Steve, a rookie whom she has hired in the teeth of her boss's seasoned objections. Steve (Mr Duchovny) is an amiable charmer who is not immediately on the ball. He is too sweet and low-key to put himself forward, at least until it is pointed out to him that putting himself forward is what the job is all about; and he seems surprised that his "wife" and "children" don't want to have anything to do with him on their time off. In a more conventional of movie, Steve would undergo a moral transformation, backing inexorably into a heartfelt rejection of everything that Kate is willing to do in order to get ahead. This is not quite what happens, however, and audiences primed to expect one outcome may be forgiven for failing to appreciate an alternative.

What Steve comes to realize is that he's very drawn to Kate. To please her, he goes from being the weakest to the strongest member of her team. It's clear that his real challenge is overcoming Kate's professional barriers, and, indeed, her defenses are breached by his sales figures. It is only when the indirect consequences of his charismatic salesmanship turn out to involve death and despair that Steve questions his new career, and his questions are peevish rather than enlightened. Meanwhile, deciding how to respond to Steve's overtures distracts Kate from recognizing that her "children" present personnel issues. Jenn (Amber Heard) is a bit of a slut, and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) turns out to be gay; just how focused on the job can either of these good-looking kids be expected to remain? In what feels like the climactic turn of the movie, Steve and Kate enjoy a genuinely romantic dinner while, unbeknownst to them, Jenn is being given the heave-ho by her married boyfriend's rich wife, and Mick makes a few bad judgments that lead to his being beaten up, followed up by a menacing police inquiry. Steve and Kate come to rescue like good parents, and for just a moment it seems that the family stays together because it sells together.

But this is not to be. The neighbor most haplessly caught up in keeping up with the Joneses spends his way into disaster. Played with bottomless bluff  by Gary Cole, Larry can't tell if he hates Steve or worships him, and he can't keep this confusion to himself, either. We suspect that Larry can't be that successful, because his wife, Summer (Glenne Headley) is trying too hard to succeed at a legitimate version of the Jones enterprise — selling high-end cosmetic products in her home. Mr Borte knows how to draw humor from the disparity between Summer's angular thrusts at success and the Fred-and-Ginger suavity of Kate and Steve. But what Summer's efforts really tell us is that Larry is not the provider that he ought to be. Pretty soon, Larry is telling Steve as much — and Steve is, rather stupidly, shocked. Caught in a cycle of buying presents for Summer that he can't afford, Larry brings his two-person household to the verge of bankruptcy — and falls in. He drives in, actually, tied to a ridiculously over-equipped lawn mower. 

Could this sort of thing happen in the real world? Would it be very wicked? The fact that the Jones's house is designed to be not a home but an attractive billboard is not the lie that interests Mr Borte. The objective of this business is not what's wrong with it; it's the means. It's obviously wrong to assume a bogus identity, even, and perhaps especially with colleagues who know that you're doing it. The Joneses serves the purpose of showing just how intriguing and alluring possibility is a bad choice. Like any satire, it wants you to think about things, and it's good enough to make you feel them: when I hung up my jacket at home afterward, my recently reorganized closet had the air of a hideous simulacrum of domestic order. Unfortunately, the film's dénouement suggested that what I'd been thinking about wasn't really worth thinking about. In the end, Mr Borte dismisses his movie in much the same way that his critics will do, and that's a shame. (May 2010)

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