Not Keeping Up
These Joneses have everything and nothing
by Molly Templeton
THE JONESES: Written and directed by Derrick Borte. Cinematography, Yaron Orbach. Editing, Janice Hampton. Music, Nick Urata. Starring Demi Moore, David Duchovny, Amber Heard, Gary Cole, Glenne Headly, Lauren Hutton and Ben Hollingsworth. Roadside Attractions, 2010. R. 96 minutes.
The Joneses are the perfect, gorgeous, white, upper-class family. They live in an enormous, spotless house in a subdivision full of enormous, spotless houses; their lovely faces adorn the walls; their furniture is so pristine, it’s like they live in an Ethan Allen showroom. The kids, Jenn (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth), go to high school. The girls all cop Jenn’s style and the boys all come over to play video games with Mick. Mom Kate (Demi Moore) spends her days going to yoga, getting her hair done and power-walking down her sunny street, while dad Steve (David Duchovny) plays a lot of golf and uses the latest mower to keep the lawn in shape.
The hints that something is not quite right start early, when Kate notes the average income of the town to which the family is moving. Over breakfast, she inexplicably distributes envelopes of cash; at night, she and Steve crawl into separate, plush, pillow-strewn beds. The kids look a little old to be in high school. The house is deeply impersonal, its residents’ conversations a little too slick. Even the cheerful way the Joneses welcome their neighbors (Gary Cole and Glenne Headly) is disturbingly polished.
The Joneses clearly have a secret, though it doesn’t stay secret for the audience very long. The concept behind writer-director Derrick Borte’s film might qualify as William Gibson-esque had he taken it a step further. What if, The Joneses asks, those perfect-seeming people with all the new toys were actually high-level marketers, selling you the idea that you want the same things they have? What if all their things, even their relationships, were carefully crafted to appeal? What if the families in furniture ads came to life, a creepy, walking, talking form of viral marketing?
Much of The Joneses’ effectiveness is thanks to its casting. If you need a woman to sell a certain lifestyle to the 40+ crowd, who better than Demi Moore, with her strange blend of arrogance and warmth? If you need a laid-back pops who plays golf all day and flirts shamelessly with his gorgeous wife, who better than David Duchovny, with his mischievous, wrinkled-eye smile and sense of effortless overconfidence? Cole and Headly, as the sweetly rumpled and mussed neighbors, are just normal enough to further underline the Joneses’ perfection.
When The Joneses focuses on the way their make-believe roles shape the faux-family’s experiences of reality, it’s smart and appealing, and fairly successful at balancing a shot of comedy with its anti-consumerist salvo. Steve likes his assigned wife so much he wants to make their relationship real, while Mick and Jenn struggle with the overlap between their characters and the hidden parts of themselves. But when Borte goes searching for conflict, he gets into trouble. His dramatic climax, though a pointed critique of corporate carelessness, is unconvincing, in part because it hinges on an underdeveloped character. His need for a happy ending compromises Moore’s Kate, giving her a clichéd choice between career and happiness (as embodied by the possibility of a real family). The film’s last half hour neatly hands a crisis to each family member, then steps back and lets sentimentality pull the teeth from its satire.
“Life is pain, Highness,” The Princess Bride’s man in black told the lovely Buttercup. “Anyone who says differently is selling something.” So, The Joneses suggests, might be anyone whose life looks too good to be true.
The Joneses opens Friday, May 21, at the Bijou and Movies 12.