Do people still say “keeping up with the Joneses”? I know we still jealously observe our neighbors’ lifestyles and try to compete with them, but I think the expression has gone out of fashion. Here’s hoping “The Joneses,” a dark and funny satire about consumerism, brings it back.
The Joneses being kept up with here are a picture-perfect family, attractive and slim, with great teeth and apparent affection for one another. Steve (David Duchovny) and Kate (Demi Moore) are the parents; Jenn (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) are their high-school-age children. They have just moved into a fabulous house in an upscale community and have become, almost instantly, the object of everyone’s admiration. They wear the latest in fashions, drive the most stylish cars, and have the coolest new gadgets. Soon everyone in town is emulating them.
Which, it turns out, was the whole idea. Twenty minutes into the film, we learn that the Joneses are professional trendsetters, employees of a company whose clients pay them to conspicuously consume their products. The reason Steve uses a certain new golf club, talking up its finer points to his buddies, is that the manufacturer has an arrangement with Steve’s employer for him to do exactly that. Ditto the food Kate serves at a dinner party, the clothes Jenn and Mick wear to school, everything. It’s real-life product placement.
They can’t tell anyone what they’re doing, of course. That would defeat the purpose. Instead, they must cultivate “friendships” with the people they’re subtly advertising to. That includes their next-door neighbors, Larry (Gary Cole) and Summer (Glenne Headly), a couple you feel sorry for immediately. Summer is a salesperson, too, the old-school kind who hosts parties to sell a line of beauty products. She’s not very good at it, but she’s so focused on it that she has no time for Larry, who adores her. Larry, following Steve’s lead — Steve and Kate seem so happy! — buys baubles for his wife.
The basic premise, if not entirely realistic, has a grain of plausibility to it. Companies really do pay people to casually promote their products in their daily lives. Taking it to this level, where the Joneses are full-time secret agents, opens the door to a wide number of possibilities, some satiric and some tragic. The Joneses aren’t even really related — they’re co-workers. What if the “husband” starts to develop actual feelings for his “wife”? How do they maintain a sense of who they really are? Are there ethical concerns involved in constantly sending the message that happiness can be bought? And what happens when friendly envy turns into jealous hatred?
The first feature by writer-director Derrick Borte, “The Joneses” hits most of its targets square in the face. The comedy of the situation is played down-to-earth, never farcical, with Duchovny and Moore giving funny, likable performances. Parody products like an alcoholic juice box obviously aimed at teenagers are almost believable. It helps that a host of real companies lent their names and logos to the film (despite its message!), giving everything an air of authenticity.
Impressively, Borte doesn’t shy away from the inevitable consequences of the scenario. Having set up this fictional world, he lets it play out naturally. Some of the results are morbid, including one image, involving a lawnmower and a pool, that reminds me of the dark laughs in “Heathers,” hilarious and tragic at the same time.
But there is heart here, too, and sunny optimism wins out over cynicism. I wonder if that was the right move, though. Without spoiling anything, the ending feels contrived and artificial. Where the rest of the film seems like the natural outgrowth of the elements Borte has put into play, the conclusion doesn’t. Furthermore, the teenage characters are given only miniature versions of the characters arcs that Kate and Steve get — a shame, since Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth, both charismatic, could have brought a lot more to the table.
Even with its small defects, though, “The Joneses” feels fresh and original, smart and tart. Its indictment of consumerism doesn’t get preachy — it’s a dark comedy, not a message film. I recommend it. Then again, how do you know the film’s distributor didn’t pay me to say that? (Full disclosure: They didn’t.)
(Addendum: The thing that pleases me most about “The Joneses” is that it reminds writers that the plural of Jones is not Jones’ or Jone’s but Joneses. Simple, elegant, satisfying.)
B (1 hr., 36 min.; )