Credit: Free images from acobox.com
[NOTE: Pictures down until I find a new provider.]

Ever get the feeling, say when you see a blouse with a $350 price tag, that either a) the world is completely crazy, or b) that there’s some sort of marketing conspiracy going on to urge all of us lemmings into “good living” bankruptcy? There’s probably a good argument for both, but the second is the foundation of the plot for the new film The Joneses, out in wider release last week.

I’d be hard pressed to categorize this film, smoothly directed by first time helmer Derrick Borte. it certainly isn’t a full-out comedy, but it’s very funny. It’s not suspense film, while it is a bit scary in its judgment on the inability of the public at large to tell the difference between what they want and what they actually need to be happy. I hesitate to call it a social commentary, though, because it may scare viewers off, and just because it has you leaving the theater thinking, after laughing quite a bit, that isn’t really a bad thing, is it?

I went into the theater, thinking that it was about actors making a reality show designed by marketers using a “perfect family” to showcase their products. It’s a natural assumption, product placement in film and television has made worldwide celebrities of people like Paris, Nicole and the Kardashian clan, who have few noticeable talents other than wearing clothes well. But in this film, the ever-so-perfect Jones family moves into a wealthy neighborhood specifically to spread the Gospel of New Toys to a relatively unsuspecting public. They are sent by what seems to be a global marketing conglomerate which has hand picked this “family” from a pool of physically beautiful salespeople to be of maximum impact on this neighborhood.

Husband Steve (David Duchovny) has endless spare time for golf and showing off his new drivers, new watches, new cars. Impossibly toned 40-something trophy wife (Demi Moore, of course) goes to the salon, the spa, the gym, attracting a parade of followers, soon aping her every fashion look. Delightfully charming and pleasant teens, Mick and Jenn (this description alone, should have branded them “fake”, don’t you think?) (Ben Hollingsworth and Amber Heard) attract all the popular kids around them immediately, and everyone wants what they have. That’s the plan, right? To quote Steve in the film, “The one who dies with the most toys, wins?”

But this family is fake. Their display of perfection is monitored and controlled from their home’s carefully designed décor to the cars they drive and even the clothes they wear each day. Loss of personal spontaneity is a small price to pay for a fun, lucrative job, isn’t it? And no one can look that suave and groomed all the time without help, right? You scratch the couturier’s back, they scratch yours…would the Duke of Windsor have been so famous after abdication without Saville Row? I wonder

But back to this “family”. The most interesting part of the film for me was watching the illusion of perfection fall apart as the real-life consequences of their actions become clear to them. Borte shows us the truth that, ironically, the more a family fights, screws up and repairs itself, the more of a real family they become.

And it’s amazing that a first time director gets so much out of his cast; these are more sensitive performances than I’ve seen from Moore and Duchovny in a long time. Moore is icily perfect as the business woman when her “audience” isn’t around requiring her to be warm, yet subtly showing us her character’s insecurities as the plot unfolds. Duchovny shines as Steve, who is our eyes into this world, taking us along with him from happy-go-lucky ex-golf pro, to focused sales-magician and then gradually showing us his disillusionment as the team’s scheme peaks and falls apart.

Hollingsworth and Heard are strong in their roles as the “kids”, especially in showing their weaknesses. Both characters seem trapped in roles that they feel they have to play even though it’s almost inevitable that they won’t be able to do it for long. Though her part as the corporation rep is a relatively small one, it’s nice to see Lauren Hutton back on the screen, wearing a tough as steel quality with as much style as Bacall, a few decades back.

And I’m always thrilled to see Gary Cole used so effectively. Often used in television, more recently as the reliable go-to guy for strong second leads, he’s never gone as far in films as he should have. I don’t know why. The camera loves him, and he has always given unsuspecting layers of intensity and complexity to any role he’s taken, plus a wickedly dry sense of humor. Who else would have done the swimming pool scene in this film half as bravely, and heck, who could have worn the infamous Mike Brady curly perm with such a straight face? The only problem I have with his casting, personally is believing him to be an under-appreciated husband. Is his wife blind, or what? When is Midnight Caller coming out on DVD???

Wrapping it up, I would hope that The Joneses finds a wider scope than the niche audience it’s art house scheduling suggests they expect. Showing at the Landmark Theatres (E Street and Bethesda Row) and the AMC art venues (Shirlington, Georgetown and Hoffman Center) and Cinema Arts in Fairfax, I want you to track it down and let me know what you think…is there actually an official plot out there manipulating us as the final credits shots suggest (cute bit, Derrick)? If not, should we start one? Sounds profitable…

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