“We’re gonna do some damage in this town,” smirks Steve Jones (David Duchovny), as his picture-perfect nuclear family arrives at their new home, an opulent estate in a gated community. They’re all smiles and style: knockout mom Kate (Demi Moore), cool son Mick (Ben Hollingsworth), pretty daughter Jenn (Amber Heard). With their perfect looks and impeccable taste, they seem a model family. But the more time we spend with them, the more they seem to be just glossy surfaces—there’s something off about them. Behind closed doors, they’re all business. But what business are they in?
Here’s where discussing The Joneses gets tricky, because this critic knew absolutely zilcho, zero, nada about the picture going in. Therefore, I was fully involved and absolutely unprepared for where the story was going to take me. But the film’s trailers are right up front about what, exactly, the Joneses are up to, and that’s a mistake; I’m sure the selling the movie without selling the high concept might have been tougher, but hey, try harder. At any rate, I’ll do my best to keep from spilling the beans here, and if you can dodge the trailer, do.
What I can tell you is that The Joneses is a smart, knowing satire of conspicuous consumption and consumerist culture, and a glib indictment of it. The film is elegantly made by gifted first-time writer/director Derrick Borte, who doesn’t just observe this shiny, expensive world; he lives in it, and lets the sheen of it all rub off on the picture, which is smooth as silk. He doesn’t just work in broad strokes and easy targets—even the throwaway moments (like the scores of pillows Steve removes from a bed) are keenly observed. He gets the look of the thing just right, yes, but also the feel, the seductiveness, of wealth—in the beauty-shot cinematography and the clever montage that reveals the film’s central premise.
As the patriarch, Duchovny does his most interesting film work to date; the comic beats are a no-brainer (his dry wit has never been better used—he can get a laugh out of a perfectly-timed “Noooooo”), but he also digs into this guy’s soul and compellingly lays out the emptiness inside. Demi Moore, who hasn’t been genuinely good in a movie since, oh, 1991 (I’m thinking Mortal Thoughts), is surprisingly, astonishingly assured and capable in this one; this tough-as-nails taskmaster mom role is an easy fit for her whiskey-soaked voice and well-preserved good looks. What’s more, the duo brings interesting things out of each other. They have the right kind of slightly off-kilter chemistry, and the intelligent crafting of their tentative relationship is one of the script’s best qualities.
The kids, on the other hand, don’t get all that much to do (their singularly-defined characters aren’t given much to play beyond the basics), and it feels like a bit of a loss to cast gifted comic actors like Gary Cole and Glenne Headly as the neighbors and have them play it straight. Some of the gags are a touch juvenile (like the hard cut after Moore’s “I think she’s finally getting it”), and a few of the third act story turns are awfully predictable. Borte also uses an obvious music cue to tip his hand too early in the scene dealing with an unexpected death.
And for all of the sly dialogue and crafty storytelling, the closing scene comes a little too easy—it feels like an arbitrary cop-out, an attempt to shove a square peg of happy ending into a round hole of a movie. The Joneses is (thankfully) a pricklier movie than that. Borte’s script isn’t a political tract or message movie, but it is timely and nicely reflective of a culture where household debt hovers near 100% of GDP. How much of that debt is due to the accumulation of meaningless stuff? How much of that stuff do we really need? And how do we become so absolutely certain that we need it?
"The Joneses" opens Friday, April 16th in limited release.