Every now and then a small, intelligent, quietly thought-provoking film slips through the Hollywood studios' net and prompts the thought, How did this ever get made? The Joneses is one such movie, a welcome surprise in an American entertainment industry dominated by vacuous 3-D spectacle, rom-com wish-fulfilment and by-the-numbers action movies. Topical, funny and gently subversive, this deserves to be a 'sleeper' hit.
Our first doubts about the Joneses surface when easy-going father Steve (David Duchovny), driving into their new upscale neighbourhood at the wheel of a brand new 4x4 gas-guzzler, announces blithely to his wife and two teenage kids, "We're gonna do some serious damage in this town." The Joneses' familial arrangements are a tad unconventional too: in one discomforting scene, libidinous daughter Jenn (Amber Heard from Pineapple Express) is dragged from her father's bed by her angry mother, Kate (Demi Moore), while protesting loudly: "If you're not gonna do him, why can't I."
Mum and Dad sleep in separate beds, though there are inklings of a suppressed sexual chemistry. Then there's sensitive son Mick (Ben Hollingsworth), whose lack of interest in his beautiful school friend Naomi (Christina Evangelista) suggests an easily-guessable secret. The ruthless, driven Kate insists that the Joneses are not a family as such; they're a 'unit', a team dedicated to selling a dream lifestyle.
Personal problems, therefore, must take second place to the Joneses' full-time job, using fake charm and calculated 'product placement' to encourage their neighbours to buy state-of-the-art golf clubs, expensive jewellery, designer hair products or frozen sushi. As their elegant boss KC (Lauren Hutton) explains, "If people want you, they'll want what you've got." The concept is called "self-marketing", and to begin with the Joneses are more or less happy to sell themselves, because they're being paid handsomely to do so.
Tiny cracks begin to show, however, as when pater familias Steve takes a liking to the family's hapless, aspirational neighbours, Larry (Gary Cole) and Summer Symonds (Glenne Headley). Steve is shocked when he discovers the damage that is being done to this lovable couple's shaky finances and fragile marriage. At the same time, the Joneses themselves start to meltdown, as a failed affair, identity crises and warm affection introduce some unwelcome emotional messiness into their cold Ideal Home.
The script by first-time writer-director Derrick Borke skewers the cynical materialism that gave birth to this perfect family, which - like the concept of the All-American Family itself - is really a fiction manufactured by advertising companies. Borke's ace card, though, is the casting. Duchovny's innate charm and flawless comic timing prevent his ex-car salesman from seeming slimy, even when he's fooling his gullible friends and neighbours.
And Demi Moore (once known as Gimme Moore, because of her outrageous demands and selfish extravagances) is perfectly typecast as the fake, avaricious Kate. That said, their lead performances are perfectly mirrored by Gary Cole's envious Larry and Glenne Headley's heartbreakingly vulnerable Summer. Sadly half a star must be deducted for the film's soft, sell-out ending, which blunts its sharp satirical edge and hints at commercial compromise.
In a nutshell: The last few minutes aside, this is a smart, insightful dissection of how 'happy family' values are undermined by materialist greed.
By Nigel Floyd