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Non-Review Review: The Joneses

The Joneses is a sharply observed, perfectly timed, more than a little cynical examination of American suburbia. Trust me when I say that it’s hard not to leave the movie thinking of American Beauty, I mean that in the most flattering way possible. Yes, I bought what it is the Joneses were selling.

Sometimes you can choose your family...

The movie is a smart little examination of the people who put the “stealth” into “stealth marketing” – essentially brand ‘astroturfing’, if you’ll pardon my haphazardly recalled marketing memories from a secondary school business studies class. Essentially the family, introduced moving into an upmarket housing estate, are a crack team of sales and marketing gurus shrewdly positioned to feed a cycle of chronic materialism amongst their wealthy neighbours.

The words “cell” and “unit” are used freely to describe the group by its members (the only people on the estate who have any idea what they are doing), with the latter seemingly used as a suffix for “military” rather than “family”. Every move is carefully choreographed and planned. Every facial gesture, sideways glance or loving phonecall is carefully staged to ensure that the other residents get a clear glimpse of the latest up-market gadget or gizmo, make-up or sports car, or even lawnmower or golf club. The family do this beneath the facade of a perfectly rehearsed bubbling and loving nuclear family – even if they’re anything but.

It’s one the film’s strengths that it feels confident enough in its audience and its premise that it doesn’t really need to load itself down with exposition or explanation. Even were we unfamiliar with the family’s secret from the marketing materials, the film informs us of it quickly enough without needing to awkwardly state it. Similarly the internal dysfunctions of the members are played relatively low-key and unremarked upon, hinted and intuited rather than outright stated.

I don’t know if units like this actually exist (apparently similar, if not completely identical, concepts exist). But it’s to the movie’s strength that I don’t really question or doubt it – director Derrick Borte has his finger firmly enough on the zeitgeist to know what he can and can’t get away with. Despite being darkly comic, the film never veers so far off course that it strains reality – in fact it’s the idea that all of this could really be happening which underscores most of the laughs.

We’re introduced to this world through the eyes of the ‘new’ father, Simon – brought to life surprisingly well by David Duchovny, who feels eerily comfortable in the role. Simon is a former golf professional and car salesman who has – through his own unfulfilled ambitions – sought some sort of spiritual awakening by playing house. By pretending to have a family. He’s the sixth ‘husband’ to Kate, the matriarch of the household (and who seems more comfortably addressed as “boss” rather than “sweetheart” or “mom”). Kate has her eyes on the prize and is just as driven by materialist desires as the poor patsies in suburbia. Only she’s not chasing an Audi, she’s seeking ‘icon’ status, a covetted title which bestows more material benefits upon her.

The movie peels away the layers of its characters – mostly focusing on Simon and Kate, though daughter Jenn gets a nice little arc as well (the son, Michael, gets his own little thread, but it’s clearly the lesser of the main stories and seems to suffer in the editing). Inevitably, as you can imagine from the very premise, the lines between the reality and the image start to fade in multiple ways, causing cracks to appear. In a way, just like a real family, the gap between the public perception and the cold reality widens even as the emotional bonds tighten.

It’s interesting to see all the brands on display here in a film about advertising. One might even call it ‘meta-advertising’, were one particularly interested in fancy-soundin’ high-falutin’ names. It’s nice to see the film using real brands – as opposed to obviously fake ones which would distract from the plot as the audience tried to figure out why Simon was driving an ‘Oodi’ (before deciding it’s probably an import) – but it can’t help but feel a little cynical and maybe even hypocritical. If so, then I am just as guilty as an audience member, as I kinda want some of that stuff. Not enough to actually buy it, but enough to concede its ‘cool factor’. Yes, the film has proved its own point, silly me. It’s like a meta-point, if you will. All joking aside, I would have like to have seen how certain advertisers were approached about product placement for the film. Without spoiling anything, particularly a lawn mower manufacturer.

The movie isn’t perfect, but it’s damn good. There are some minor problems. The most obvious is the fact that the mid-section seems relatively condensed. We get the sense that individual characters – particularly the ‘son’ Michael and ‘daughter’ Jenn – are going through their own stories, but these are suddenly and dramatically cut short without any real closure (well, there’s some hinted closure in both cases). There’s a fairly ‘big’ event which just slams down an ending on the film which seems a tad… convenient. I don’t mean that it doesn’t make sense (it makes more than a bit and is heavily foreshadowed), I just mean it seems odd that after focusing so much on the internal dynamic of the family, the catalyst for the movie’s finale should be an external source. Still, these are relativley minor complaints.

The cast is great. I singled out Duchovny because… well, he hasn’t really deserved singling out before. He’s always been adequate, but here he does a really good job with the material in a tough role. In fairness, all the family members have tough roles. Demi Moore is great (and, again, I can’t think of another example where she deserved singling out for praise), but Amber Heard is the other breakout act of the film. Jenn is an interesting, complex and messed up character, and Heard brings her to life very well. I expect good things in the future.

It’s also nice to see supporting turns from long-term cult performers like Gary Cole and Glenne Headley as Larry and Summer, the nextdoor neighbours. Summer is a less successful saleswoman than any of the Joneses, but – then again – aren’t we all just struggling sales people trying to sell ourselves as a product? It’s an idea the movie handles well, as well as hinting at the dangers of easy credit and taking a well-deserved shot at alcohol companies which produce mixers which are obviously intended for underage drinkers, despite what they may claim.

The Joneses is a solid film. A great film, even, and one that deserves attention. I stand by the opening paragraph where I invoked the sacred deconstruction of suburbia, American Beauty. This film here might not be quite the same level of masterpiece, but it stands up to the comparison. Which is more than a lot of other films can claim.

Thanks to The Right Hook for organising the preview screening (and for giving a shift individual such as myself tickets). It was a good night and a great film. Good call. Now if I could wrangle my way into an Iron Man 2 preview…

7 Responses

  1. Nice to see that you were pleased with the performances as I had high expectation for this indie because of it. I was looking forward to this movie earlier in the year but after seeing the trailer, it did not seem as original as I first thought. I will wait for the DVD although it still looks like a good watch. One of those films that probably won’t be seen by too many people unfortunately 😦

    • Yep, definitely worth a look. And, though I own the X-Files on DVD, I’ve bnever really been sold on Duchovny as an actor before (I’m a Gillian Anderson man, myself). Apparently (so I’m told), he’s quite good over on Californication.

  2. The trailer threw me off a little when it turned into a Duchovny loves Moore story instead of the satire I thought it was supposed to be.

    • Yep, it does a little bit, but that’s a lot more of a subplot. The middle of the film becomes a kinda soap opera, which (I think) still works well. Still “darkly comedic deconstruction of the damage caused by American consumerism” doesn’t really sell movie tickets in the current climate.

  3. I attended the premiere of “The Joneses” in Toronto last September. It’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. I love the way the movie conveys its message to the audience that there are things you cannot buy for any amount of money but everyone needs to find happiness. By the way you can now preorder “The Joneses” on amazon.com.

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