The Joneses, the new Demi Moore/David Duchovny venture from Roadside Attractions, is one long commercial with very little substance. If you take it at face value and just focus on the flashy "stuff," you will find yourself enamored much the way those actually in the film are. But that's just vapid consumerism. The characters are all products just as much as the actual Ethan Allen furniture, Van Cleef jewels, HTC phones, and Audi convertibles that they peddle. We know nothing of or about these people: we do not know who they are, what they want, or what brought them to this line of "work"-- save for one expositional line of dialogue about Demi Moore's "mom/head of household" character. We don't even know their real names or ages; there is nothing seeded that makes us want to care about them as people. If there was, we might want to be them. But instead we just want what they have.
A bunch of actors, hired to move into a city and take it by storm-- driving the seemingly hottest cars, wearing the newest designs, and carrying the best accessories. But what happens when the party winds down for the night and the seeming strangers have to retire to their private quarters? What do they do? What are their goals? The most basic of motivation questions any screenwriters and actors ask when fleshing out their characters are completely ignored in The Joneses. It simply doesn't matter because these are not well-rounded people; they are merely well put together props.
The movie itself has a layer of gloss to it, too, that is needed when trying to distract the audience from the fact that something is trendy and gimmicky but in a "here today, gone tomorrow" sort of way. Pretty early on it is established that the "family" will only be in this chosen town and community for about a year before moving on, so any relationships they make are purely superficial-- to keep people interested but still at an arm's length. But the relationship with the audience should be a more intimate one, as the audience is in on their secret and should therefore be treated as a confidante.
At a press conference held in Beverly Hills last week for the movie, Writer/Director Derrick Borte said that he wasn't out to spread any particular message with The Joneses. Instead, he simply hoped his movie would "start a discussion" about the consumerism and desire for material to fill some sort of void in one's lives. But that just sounds like someone who is anticipating-- and wanting to stay ahead of-- the exact kind of criticism reviewers like me will heap on him! If the auteur behind the project doesn't even have a clear vision, it makes it feel like, he, too, is just out for the material rewards that making a movie can often bring.
Every family is flawed, even the fake ones. When we meet Amber Heard as "daughter" Jennifer, she is sexually inappropriate with her hired daddy and then a father-figure neighbor. Instead of looking deeper to learn if perhaps her promiscuous ways come from desperation just to find one real connection, she is brushed aside as "the slut" both verbally by at least one other character and tonally, by the film itself. When she has her moment of clarity in the third act, her devastation at how wrong she has been does not feel authentic because nothing that led up to it showed her as so honestly vulnerable.
Moore's Kate has moments of fluidity, namely when she sits cross-legged on the floor of her bedroom, compulsively shoving Sun Chips into her mouth while watching Steve (Duchovny)'s "audition" video. Although even here the scene seems much more focused on the brand of snack than on any true breakthroughs for Kate. She is the woman who put career first; she chose to live a lie in a fancy lifestyle because she wasn't finding what she wanted in the so-called real world. But in being so wrapped up in climbing the ladder of that lie, she never has the opportunity to see if there is more out there for her. She throws herself into making Steve the top earner in their unit, and when he is successful, one might assume that either sparks her competitive drive or bites her in the ass because she has been neglecting her own sales. But even with high stakes, The Joneses is extremely watered-down.
Steve begins to get under Kate's skin, naturally, as any movie with good-looking leads needs sexual tension to survive in today's salacious industry. But it is hard to understand why, as their early scenes are completely dedicated to her trying to get him to talk about strategies to increase their numbers. There is no turning point, character wise, where the two really share a moment; in fact, the only times they connect in any way is when they lock lips for appearances. So, fine, maybe the guy's a good kisser, but Kate hasn't been kissed in awhile, so any character could have planted one on her and the reaction would have been the same. There was no spark from Steve; there was nothing exceptionally charming about him at all. Perhaps that is because Duchovny always seems a little bit tired and/or bored; his performance is muted and somewhat dry. Even Duchovny admitted that he and Moore only had about eighteen pages worth of so-called love story. "There just wasn't that much there," he shrugged. "It wasn't the focus [of the movie]." So it's no wonder that they felt like a mismatch, but it is a major wonder why Borte felt the need to force it.
Gary Cole is the epitome of that envious next-door lookie-loo who desperately tries to keep up with the Joneses to the point of basically bankruptcy. He does a fine job layering an otherwise one-note character so that there is something of an emotional journey as he goes from hapless husband to loving provider to financial mess. But such little time is really spent with him that doesn't revolve on a new golf club or shiny red sports car that his sadly isn't the cautionary tale about debt and consumerism that it should be. The Joneses isn't out to make a point that needless spending is detrimental, even when it could-- and perhaps should. The Joneses capitalizes (pun intended) on the fact that the audience will be focused on all the pretty, shiny "wants," and for the most part, not even realize that nothing really happens plot-wise.
What makes the Joneses as a family work in their suburban community is that they are on the cutting edge; they have the gadgets and fashions before they hit the department stores. What makes The Joneses as a movie fail, though, is that it was shot so long ago that the barrage of the same merchandise and logos-- both as static insert shots as well as decorations on and around the characters-- are all pretty commonplace and even outdated now, especially in big markets like New York and Los Angeles. Velour tracksuits? So 2004! MBTs? Now Sketchers makes much more stylish models! Cell phones that allow you to take and send videos to loved ones? Been there, done that. Frozen sushi or alcohol that comes in Capri Sun style pouches? Not sure I'd ever be willing to be there or try that! And Audis? Really? With all the luxury cars out there for the target demo of low six-figures, the @$$hole magnet car is the one being pushed? Even if you treat this movie-going experience as the simple window-shopping trip it seems to scream to be, it is a wonder why what made the cut actually did.
The Jones "family" is selling a lifestyle in The Joneses, and the filmmakers (and I use that term loosely) are selling something as well. Unfortunately, I'm just not buying it.