A great premise does not a great movie make. The most telling problem with director Derrick Borte's critique on America's voracious consumer culture is that you can easily imagine corporations lining up to have their products placed in The Joneses. It's not just the confusing fetishism (that is, the near-pornographic depictions of high-end items) that turns Borte's film into satire-lite, it's the conventional and toothless drama that unfolds. Instead of a scathing parody of mistaken values run amok, we're given a predictable moral fable that happiness can only be achieved through authentic love and affection.
Steve (David Duchovny) and Kate (Demi Moore) Jones move into an affluent suburb with their model-perfect teenage kids Jenn (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth). They're perfect. Charming, attractive and obviously rich, they quickly enchant neighbors, golf club members and kids at school. Before you know it, the whole community is, wait for it ... trying to keep up with the Joneses. Only it's all a sham. Each member of this well-coiffed family is actually a corporate employee, hired to virally market ritzy products to their envious neighbors. Contracted for a year, and managed by KC (Lauren Hutton), their economic impact is evaluated monthly. Like I said, great premise, and a trenchant comment on our transactionally obsessed society.
Unfortunately, the plot kicks in. Steve, the rookie, proves to be a natural, but starts questioning what he's doing. Kate is the vet striver whose cold, get-ahead heart starts to thaw for her faux hubby. Jenn starts looking for love in all the wrong places, and Mick struggles to repress his real identity. See? Even though they're not really a family they start to suffer like one. And those fractures threaten to bring the whole creepy house of cards tumbling down.
The cast brings its A-game, with Duchovny exuding hangdog charisma, the kids downplaying melodramatic twists, and Moore mastering hard-nosed elegance. The little-seen actress stumbles a bit at the end when she's supposed to soften, but that may be because she instinctively knows it's the wrong choice. Borte's movie demands a nasty satirical treatment a la Election or Wag the Dog but instead falls somewhere between The Truman Show and EdTV. After its cleverly scripted setup, The Joneses goes soft and squishy, focusing on domestic soap opera twists and losing any chance at effectively skewering the predatory corporate practice of encouraging overconsumption. A token effort is made with Gary Cole and Glenn Headley servicing a subplot about lustful and cash-strapped neighbors, but it's too little and too broad. By its emaciated feel-good ending you can't help but think that The Joneses is either chickening out or pulling the ultimate bait-and-switch, fooling us into believing it has something meaningful to say as it hawks the latest Audis, Dell computers and beauty products (which Yaron Orbach's cinematography luminously captures).
I'm reminded of an ad I saw a decade or so ago in the Chicago Reader. It was a picture of a Porsche Carrera and it read: "Got a small penis? Have I got a car for you." If only The Joneses had balls to be half as clever and incisive.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.