I regularly read stories or hear rumors about invasive marketing, either real or speculative. Things like stores keeping track of your purchases and accessing your history with the swipe of a credit card, or worse, having external scanners pick up on you as you come in and knowing instantly what your buying habits are. I know that my supermarket uses their club membership to give me coupons for things I bought before and might buy again.
But what if the people next door to you aren't average neighbors, but are corporate agents planted there to advance their promotional agenda? This is the novel concept of The Joneses, a smart indie comedy from first-time writer/director Derrick Borte.
The Joneses look like the perfect family. There is nice guy dad Steve (David Duchovny), who likes expensive toys and playing golf. He's married to beautiful go-getter Kate (Demi Moore), the kind of woman who always looks impeccable and keeps her house in the same shape. Their kids are Jen (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth), and they always have the latest fashions before their peers do. The Joneses know everyone and turn away no one. They are friends to all, willing to share advice and a peek at the labels on their clothes and gadgets.
They look like the perfect family because millions of dollars went into making them that way. Their corporate overseers send them into communities for a year, where they shake up the neighborhood by hipping their pals to the latest, coolest thing. Sales of the sponsored products are tracked and the salesmen get rated. It's called "self-marketing." Steve, Kate, Jen, and Mick sell themselves, and then their friends want what they've got.
The movie The Joneses begins with the team moving into a new home in an upscale community. Kate is leading her first mission as head of household, and Steve is a rookie on his first time out. We learn later that he is a former golf pro who was rescued from a used car lot for this gig. It's also pretty obvious from the start that he has designs on Kate. He doesn't like their separate bedrooms or their pretend relationship. Kate is a gorgeous and intelligent woman, who wouldn't want her? Too bad she's all business. She and Steve make fast friends with the couple next door, a business man (Gary Cole) and his wife (Glenne Headley), who sells cosmetics. They start there and work their way out, finding the right hair salons, meeting the right people on the golf course, and crafting the perfect guest list for their parties in order to start influencing the entire community.
The Joneses is a smart, witty look at consumer culture that explores the drive behind why we want the things we want and questions whether those things are really important. Don't worry, though, Derrick Borte doesn't resort to his characters speechifyin' about the evils of capitalism, The Joneses is more of a social fable. The behavior of his characters and the situations they get themselves into make the point for him. The first time the fake family stumbles into the same dysfunctional problems that a real family has, you realize what a clever idea this is. The marketing firm tries to boil everything down to numbers, but they forget that those sums are made up of individuals that can never really be fit into easy categories.
David Duchovny is the key to the plot working. The fact that Steve Jones is a man who has failed hopes and dreams makes him the perfect monkeywrench for a machine that buys and sells hopes and dreams. While his flirting with Kate initially seems like an overly convenient story device, as we get to know Steve, it starts to make sense. Here is a guy who yearns for more, who is adrift in a world of transient connections, and when he is offered the simulation of something more concrete, he's ready to jump at it. Duchovny is wonderful to watch in the movie. He is perfectly at ease in the role, and his cocky charm and real vulnerability make for a winning combination. Demi Moore appears to be enjoying trading lines with him, and it's easy to remember why she once commanded the box office. Headley and Cole are also excellent in their supporting roles, and Amber Heard shows real vixen potential.
Borte directs the movie with a slick style, pacing his story so that it moves quickly. Movies that critique commercialism are always tricky because they usually contain a lot of product placement that, if The Joneses were smug about its point of view, could come off as hypocritical (i.e. they are getting paid to sell us stuff while telling us commercials are bad). Borte concocts a scenario where Gary Cole's character gets competitive with Duchovny's and has his financial mishaps be one of only several plot twists where life starts getting too real for the Joneses. Jen and Mick are both faced with situations where the consequences of their ruse make them question what they are doing, and alongside the romantic developments between Steve and Kate, they form a foundation on which Steve's eventual break from the program makes sense.
The Joneses manages to maintain a game face all the way up to the end, tripping up just at the last moment when it opts to give the audience what it presumes it wants rather than going for the tougher, far more satisfying conclusion it could have had. I keep joking that I am going to start a list of movies that would be so much better if only they had ended one scene earlier. The Joneses would definitely be on it. Still, it's an ending I can live with, and it's not entirely one that Borte hasn't earned. It would be a shame to turn away from the film based on less than a minute of footage, because other than that, Derrick Borte has really come up with something here. Just when you think Hollywood has no ideas left, that their product is nothing but remakes and adaptations, along comes The Joneses, an original script that is truly original. You see? It can be done!
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.