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Movie review: ‘The Joneses’

In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be necessary to reveal the sublime conceit of “The Joneses” in order to review the film. Alas, ours is a realm of planned obsolescence, next big things and false advertising. So for those who — reasonably — require more than a general endorsement of the movie’s cleverness, timeliness and strong performances, here goes:

A perfect-seeming family moves into an upscale neighborhood, generating envy and, yes, a scramble to keep up with them. How perfect are they? Dad Steve and mom Kate are played by David Duchovny and Demi Moore; the kids are gorgeous Amber Heard (in her best role to date) and handsome Ben Hollingsworth; and they have every shiny new thing high-end consumers didn’t realize they needed. The catch? They’re not a real family. They’re an advertising construct: four ace salesmodels hired by a stealth marketing company to make everyone around them want everything they have in the hopes of becoming everything the Joneses pretend to be. But when neighbors Larry and Summer get caught up on the ever-accelerating status treadmill, disaster threatens.

Great idea. And first-time writer-director-producer Derrick Borte delivers on its promise, with plenty of help from his fine cast. As the unit’s commander, Moore balances steely Kate’s career goals with a growing attraction to Steve. As the team’s newest member, Duchovny lets his charisma loose on the Audi-driving rubes around town. A lesser actor might set his charm on cruise control; Duchovny is smart enough to let Steve not know everything. His learning curve is steep — and precipitous. The family’s subtle sales pitches are expertly tuned and may feel unsettlingly familiar.

“The Joneses” is a list of grievances nailed to the door of the Church of Materialism, but the hammer never hits the audience’s fingers. This may be due to Borte’s advertising background and interest in subliminal marketing that spawned the story, and to the movie’s sly humor and occasional bouts of sexiness. But, more likely, it’s the filmmakers’ refusal to make easy targets of the privileged worshipers of stuff who are manipulated by the Joneses.

Larry and Summer have deep feelings and serious, relatable concerns. In these meaty roles, veterans Gary Cole and Glenne Headly don’t squander their opportunities. Headly is touchingly brittle, while Cole’s Larry is such a convincingly good guy, with genuine concern for his wife’s happiness, that the portrayal doesn’t give the audience room to dismiss him as some cardboard cut-out representative of the über-consumerist class.

The ending feels a bit rushed and incongruous, but the film never leaves behind the humanity of its characters, especially Steve’s as he finds his true self while playing the “perfect” version of himself. After all, even the faux-Joneses have to face, at some point, the question of what they’re really selling — and how much of themselves is included in the price.

calendar@latimes.com


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