Saturday, April 17, 2010
“The Joneses” (opened April 16 at Landmark’s La Jolla Village Theaters) takes its title from the competitive notion of “keeping up with the Joneses” and gives it a contemporary spin.
Kate (Demi Moore) and Steve (David Duchovny) seem like they have the perfect life. They are an attractive couple, seemingly in passionate love, living in a beautiful home, and with a pair of gorgeous kids. They have the hottest new model car; their kids have the coolest electronic gadgets; and their house has the biggest big screen TV and fanciest furniture… it’s all too good to be believed.
And guess what, it’s all a sham. Kate and Steve aren’t living the American Dream, (as the poster says) they are selling it to you… stealth style. This isn’t really a spoiler since the trailer and poster give away the twist that the Joneses are not a family but a group of employees tasked with selling the American Dream and its products. But the film is actually best before it reveals what Kate and Steve are up to.
“The Joneses” begins with great promise. The creepy perfection of the Joneses is effective as we wonder what they are up to – are they androids being tested in the field, a family of serial killers looking to wipe out an entire neighborhood, are they a religious cult looking to brainwash people… While we are guessing, the film scores some points. We see the cracks forming in the perfect family and don’t know why, and we are amused by the family’s increasing dysfunction. The reveal that it’s all about advertising and selling could have been put to good use. It could have allowed the film to become a scathing satire or a social commentary on our current consumerism and materialism. It could have become a kind of David Lynchian look at the ickiness behind the white picket fences of America -- or the selling of those fences.
But director-writer Derrick Borte blows all his opportunities by allowing his film to turn into what’s essentially a trite romantic comedy-drama that cops out to the kind of happy ending that the film should be tearing down as a misleading façade. In the end, the film is as guilty of the stealth sales approach as its characters. It’s selling the Hollywood message of “everything is okay in the end.” People can go bankrupt pursuing material desires, people can die, you can lie and mislead… but in the end you can still get the girl, and the money, and live happily ever after.
In addition, since the characters are trying to sell a high-end lifestyle, so too does the film seem to be selling that. This film is like one long product placement commercial. I’m wondering if that’s how Borte conceived of financing his film in the first place. Maybe he thought, “How do I get the money to make my first feature? How about writing a story about people who try to sell the American Dream and I’ll get money from all the products I showcase.” Mmmm? Not a bad idea. Right? Wrong.
In different hands – say a savvy satirist like Michael Ritchie in his heyday or a creepy stylist like David Fincher – “The Joneses” could have either been a biting comedy or a genuinely disturbing drama. But Borte invests the film with no originality aside from the beginning premise. His problem is that he has no sense of how to play his story. His film fails as a comedy, a drama, a romance, and a social commentary. He touches a little on each but then doesn’t know what to do except to fall victim to clichés in the end. This is a film in which either a price must be paid by the characters for their callous deceptions or the stealth campaigns must continue on uninterrupted with the film using that as a wake up call or warning to audiences. But to turn the film into a sappy romance is just the worst choice imaginable.
The best thing in the film is some of the production design. The dream house includes giant photos of the perfect family and the images loom over their imperfections with ironic glee. But Borte doesn’t find an interesting way to shoot his film to play this up effectively. Fincher in his film “Fight Club” managed to make a more potent commentary on consumerism with his single shot of the main character surveying his room as if it were an IKEA catalog. Heck, George A. Romero’s second zombie installment “Dawn of the Dead” made a savvier commentary on consumerism and materialism. Either of those films is more interesting and stylish while hitting in part on similar ideas.
Moore is a good choice to play a woman who is mostly all a facade. She's played the tough female boss before too so this is all familiar terrain for her. By casting the always sardonic Duchovny, audiences know from the start that he will be the one to sabotage the project. Gary Cole and Glenne Headly as the poor unsuspecting neighbors try to invest their roles with some pathos but Borte doesn't really know how to deal with any real emotions.
“The Joneses” (rated R for language, some sexual content, teen drinking and drug use) is a major disappointment because the initial premise is so ripe with promise and Borte blows it all.
Companion viewing: “Dawn of the Dead” (Romero’s), “Fight Club,” “How to Get Ahead in Advertising,” "The Stepford Wives"