A family portrait with a twist
By Dan Kois
Friday, April 16, 2010
How do you write about a movie like "The Joneses"? After all, the pleasures it offers a moviegoer are inversely proportional to the amount the moviegoer knows about it beforehand. But when was the last time you entered a movie theater innocent as a lamb?
Remember when you saw "The Truman Show," and you thought how much better it would have been if you were as surprised as Truman to discover that his entire life was a fake? But you didn't, because it's awfully difficult to remain ignorant of a movie's premise when buffeted by the waves of news coverage, trailers and advertising that every movie bleeds in the weeks before its release.
As it happens, that steady intrusion of advertising, advertorial and advertainment into our everyday lives is one of the themes that propels "The Joneses," a well-conceived if imperfect high-concept drama written and directed by Derrick Borte. As the movie begins, one of the first things we hear is a voice praising the smooth ride of a snappy new car, and one of the first things we see is a hand brushing clean the prominently displayed logo of that car's maker. The voice and the hand belong to David Duchovny, who plays Steve Jones, the patriarch of an attractive family moving into a gated community -- the kind of exurban Shangri-La where even the non-infirm travel around in golf carts.
At first you may think, as a result of that literal logo-polishing, that you're watching a movie that has sold its soul entirely to product placement. Either that, or a canny satire of product placement. As the family -- in addition to Steve, there's lovely mom Kate (Demi Moore) and two kids in high school (Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth) -- moves into its impeccably staged McMansion, you may wonder if the movie is yet another lamentation on suburban spiritual emptiness. As they meet their desperate-to-seem-desperately-happy neighbors (Gary Cole and Glenne Headley), you'll guess it's an expos on the corrosive effects of wealth on the soul. And as things get weirder and weirder between family members, you may become nervous that you're watching a drama about parents and children on the edge.
"The Joneses" is all those things, to its credit and its detriment, and as its gimmick dawns on you about 20 minutes in, you'll find its various pieces fall into place with a satisfying click. For a while, it's a smart, nervy satire that makes good use of its actors. Duchovny's easy charm, and his uneasy mien, have rarely been put to better use than as Steve, who makes friends effortlessly but is having trouble keeping a secret from the world. And the brittle, driven Kate, the real engine behind the family's social success, is the best role that Moore has had in years; like Moore herself, Kate is a product as much as she is a person, but there's real warmth underneath the logo. As the kids, Heard and Hollingsworth, two handsome specimens, make for a great running gag on Hollywood's inability to cast anyone under the age of 24 as a high-schooler.
Unfortunately, the movie's second half drags, never again achieving the first half's level of narrative dexterity. By the end, "The Joneses" feels a little too satisfied with its own admittedly clever conceit and for the broad leeway it allows itself in the creative bandying of logos and slogans. Which cellphone is best for hysterically calling your married lover? Which riding mower looks nicest at the bottom of a pool? Thanks to the movie's extensive -- and, for story purposes, crucial -- product placement, you'll know. "The Joneses" not only gets to have its cake and eat it, too, it also gets to hold the Betty Crocker box up to the camera and tell you why it tastes so good.
Contains profanity, nudity, teen drinking and drug use.
3 stars (if you don't already know what the movie's about); 2 stars (if you do)