The Joneses is about a four-member sales unit posing as a family in order to use guerrilla tactics like fake banter and good old-fashioned envy to push a variety of high-end products on unsuspecting rich people. I’m telling you this up front and in plain language in case you want to see the movie yourself, in which case you’ll need a cheat sheet to make sense of it at the beginning. First-time writer-director Derrick Borte commits a number of sins in the film, but the biggest is that everyone in it behaves as if they’ve read the script already. Every quality piece of filmed entertainment establishes its concept quickly and (hopefully) with a minimum of exposition. Two random examples: If you go into The Godfather knowing nothing about it, you will immediately begin to piece together that it’s about a sprawling Italian family in mid-century America with ties to crime. If you watch Shaun of the Dead without being told its premise, you’ll instantly realize it’s a comedy that evolves into a horror film without losing the hero’s central quest to get back with his girlfriend.
Those movies just happened to be the first ones I saw when I glanced up at my DVD shelf, but they perfectly illustrate the fact that every movie must to some degree establish its narrative for the viewer. Without that, it flounders. So when The Joneses opens with Steve (David Duchovny), Kate (Demi Moore), Mick (Ben Hollingsworth), and Jenn (Amber Heard) driving to their new home as Kate instructed the younger people that their new neighborhood had a high concentration of the teen marketing demo, I had to step back and wonder why she’d bother telling them that. The Joneses are pretending to be a family to subtly push products on people, but this central gimmick is neither held back long enough to function as a plot twist nor established cleanly enough to provide momentum. Borte, working from a story by Randy T. Dinzler, wants us to give him the benefit of the doubt and let the movie coast from the outset on its idea, but he forgets to bother setting that idea up or even explaining it. The film doesn’t work unless you’ve seen the trailer.
Steve is the newest member of the group, playing the father to two disaffected young employees and husband to a woman who doesn’t want much to do with him. The goal of the fake Jones clan is to live a life of opulence that their new neighbors will want for themselves, and to do so by modeling new products and styles in order to create a kind of ripple effect. Steve took the job because he needed the money, having previously been a golf pro and a car salesman, but in another rookie mistake, Borte folds that knowledge into awkward dialogue instead of showing us Steve working those jobs and then happening upon the cutting-edge sales gig as a way to make some real cash. I can’t get over what a missed opportunity it would’ve been to have Steve be our anchor from the beginning, and show him moving from station to station with real momentum and purpose.
Once in their new town, the Joneses set about modeling their products for the rest of the neighborhood. Steve makes friends with guys at the golf course, while Kate heads to the salon to chat up bored cougars and befriend the flamboyant stylist (Chris Williams) and the kids head off to school to model cell phones and trendy skirts. Borte’s not wrong about the conspicuous consumption or social inferiority complexes, but he’s also not bringing anything new to the table. His argument seems to be: We desire more than we should, and this has negative consequences. It’s a solid truth and definitely worth exploring, but while the film wants to be about the dark underbelly of capitalist pursuit, it winds up settling for something less. It’s not sharp enough to be a satire and not engaging enough to be a character study.
The Joneses’ neighbors, Larry (Gary Cole) and Summer (Glenne Headly), are a mirror of Steve and Kate: Summer’s an aspiring saleswoman for home beauty products, while Larry’s also living beyond his means thanks to some poor credit choices. Larry’s problems only mount as the film progresses, and whatever traction it makes is a result of the battered look in Larry’s eyes as he realizes he’ll never get to the level he thinks he deserves. He buys an Audi to match the one Steve drives, but Steve’s soon given another one by his bosses, leaving Larry feeling like used goods for driving a top-of-the-line car.
It would be wrong and unfair to call the film plotless, because on a technical level, things happen: Steve and Kate grow closer, Jenn engages in some reckless sexual behavior, Mick deals with hiding his own personal issues from his fellow students. But there’s no sense that it’s leading anywhere. Late in the film, a pointless moment of tragedy is injected to give the story a false sense of weight or importance, as if spinning a wheel and assigning a sad fate to a character is the same thing as building to a compelling ending. Almost every character maintains a remarkably consequence-free existence, though not out of any authorial sense of commenting on the isolated lives of the rich; it’s just bad writing.
If not for Duchnovny, most of the film would be unsalvageable. He’s winningly charming and perfectly at home playing men who gently buck the system, and he gets the screenplay’s only jokes (and there aren’t that many). Moore isn’t bad, but there’s a feeling that she could’ve done more if the role had required her to do more than reject Steve, accept him, reject him, think twice, and accept him again. The younger actors are mostly place holders, and Heard spends most of the film biting her lip and playing with her hair, just an older version of Kristen Stewart that was willing to go topless.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the film’s lack of subtlety and originality is to look at the title: The Joneses, as in “keeping up with the.” There’s no attempt to make observations on any but the broadest and most basic levels, and to then act as if those observations were deep or hard-earned. Borte parades a seemingly endless stream of products and fantasies in front of the camera and then half-heartedly calls them meaningless, but that doesn’t stop the main characters from driving their Mercedes-Benz SUV into the sunset. The story lacks the courage of its clichéd convictions, and Borte seems to overlook the lesson that it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. I’ve thought a lot since I saw the film about why it just seems to start and end lifelessly, skating on a premise it never bothers to explain and characters that never become real enough to care for, and at first I thought it was just ignorance. But I wonder if it might instead be apathy. What’s the point in worrying about storytelling when there’s no story?