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Case Number 19325: Small Claims Court

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The Joneses

Fox // 2009 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // July 21st, 2010

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Editor's Note

Our review of The Joneses (Blu-Ray), published August 26th, 2010, is also available.

The Charge

Whoever dies with the most toys wins.

The Case

What an appealing family are the Joneses. Mom and Dad are a most attractive couple, and they have two good-looking, bright teenagers.

And how stylish they all are, always dressed in the latest fashion, clothes that they wear so well.

And so ahead of the curve on technology, cosmetics, refreshments, cars—they have things you haven't even seen advertised.

Well, actually, you have seen them advertised. The Joneses, you see, aren't a real family. They're stealth marketers, living, breathing advertisements, perfect representations of the American dream.

Only, they aren't paying for it—because you are.

The Joneses opened in limited release in April 2010, received middling reviews, and then vanished without coming close to making back its relatively modest $10 million budget. Apparently, opening a comedy about out-of-control luxury spending during a recession wasn't the best idea. Now, you get to invite The Joneses into your own home courtesy of Fox.

David Duchovny (Californication) and Demi Moore (Striptease) play Steve and Kate, "the Joneses" to their neighbors. In real life, they are two people whose only connection is that they work for LifeImage, a sophisticated marketing firm. LifeImage hires attractive people to pose as families and moves them into upscale communities, where they make friends and influence people. Steve, for instance, used to be a golf pro. As Steve Jones, he spends his days on the local links, impressing the men with his skills but attributing his game to the new clubs he's using. He also has a house full of electronic toys and gadgets that he loves showing off. Kate gets to know the women, and soon the local wives are running up their charge cards trying to emulate their new neighbor.

Kate and Steve have been assigned a son, Mick (Ben Hollingsworth, Degrassi: The Next Generation), and a daughter, Jenn (Amber Heard, Pineapple Express), "teens" who become trendsetters at their local high school. To the outside world, this is one great family, and the neighbors are outdoing themselves to keep up with them.

But just like a "real" family, all is not as it seems behind the carefully manicured lawn and the gleaming smiles. "Daughter" Jenn is a sex-hungry young woman who likes older men. Steve and Mick aren't comfortable living lies and start to see that what they're doing is damaging, not only to themselves. Only Kate, driven, ambitious, and cold and perfect as a Sub-Zero 'fridge, is completely dedicated to this.

While Steve is getting better at impressing his neighbors, he's also dedicating himself to something else: unthawing his faux-Mrs.

Upward mobility is such a consistent target of satire that it long-ago became low-hanging fruit, and a society that, thanks to technology, is rapidly becoming a global Tupperware party lowers the farce-bar even more. Of course, the downsides to all this easy acquisition—massive personal debt, home foreclosures, and the like—are no laughing matter.

The Joneses doesn't bring anything new to the table, and since it focuses on people who are already well-off, it exists in something of a comfort zone. These aren't the people who lost everything because of excessive spending, they're the ones everyone else was trying to emulate. That "must have it all" mentality is lampooned here in a film that is occasionally sharp, fairly dark, and pretty entertaining thanks to its cast.

With his edgy nice-guy persona, Duchovny is a good fit as Steve, the cool new neighbor whose toys you wish were yours. Duchovny brings lots of charisma and a nice, winking sense of self to the role, along with sly comedic timing.

Also good are Gary Cole (The Brady Bunch Movie) and Glenne Headly (Dick Tracy) as the Joneses neighbors, Larry and Summer—he perhaps the most eager of all to keep up with the new family, she more interested in establishing herself with a high-end Avon-style cosmetics representative. Heard has some good moments as "daughter" Jenn, and Hollingsworth is fine as Mick.

But it's Demi Moore who really shines here. Her demeanor icy, her appearance almost preternaturally perfect, she is a study in corporate ruthlessness, an off-shoot of the type of character Faye Dunaway played in Network. It's one of Moore's most accomplished performances, and it's a shame that it's not in a more accomplished film.

Writer/director Derrick Borte seems torn between making a scathing satire on consumerism and a Hollywood rom-com. He ends up trying to do both, and the result is a film that works to a point but is not nearly as satisfying as it could be.

The Joneses are supposed to be a living commercial featuring a perfect family, but Borte shows us the cracks in the facade almost right away. By the 10-minute mark, we understand not only the scheme, but also the dynamics of the "family." Steve puts his move on Kate immediately, setting up not so much an awkward working relationship on "the team," but an awkward series of Cheers Season One Sam-and-Diane moments—and setting up the film's secondary conflict, which is far more easily resolvable than the first, the way corporations sell us products we don't need by promoting a lifestyle that doesn't exist.

Borte positions Steve as the film's conscience, and as any successful marketer can tell you, a conscience can be a liability in the sales business. While Duchovny is fine, the script has the character tipping his hand a little too early. We know that despite his ambitions, Steve's own conscience is going to come into play at the climax, just as we know where the other characters' choices will lead.

This is the problem with The Joneses: Despite all the possibilities of its premise for a truly dark and edgy film, it follows the standard social comedy/drama formula too closely. This is a film that should be smarter than its audience, but it's too easy to figure out where it's headed. Borte goes for palatable instead of powerful and ends up with a predictable movie kept afloat by an appealing cast. It's a good idea that should have been developed more adventurously.

The closest we get to a subversive statement is that virtually every person in the film is white. I actually went back and counted, and came up with five non-white actors, all male: a gay hairdresser, a cop, a chauffeur, a waiter, and a guest at a party (who seems to be with the hairdresser). While I might have missed a moving man or store clerk, every other person—including every kid at the high school—is white. Borte is obviously commenting on the type of people marketers target, and to his credit, he does this without speechifying or sledgehammering. If he had given us more of these kinds of subtle observations and fewer scored-to-soft-rock interludes, The Joneses might have been more than the amusing but forgettable comedy drama that it is.

Fox sent over a screener for review, so it's well-nigh impossible to comment on the tech, though I'm guessing that since this is a new film and not especially visually ambitious, it should be OK. It's also well-nigh impossible to comment on the extras, since they consisted of two measly deleted scenes. There wasn't even a trailer for this one.

The Verdict

While it's hardly an undiscovered gem, The Joneses deserved better than its brief, unsuccessful theatrical run. While it could have been more cutting and inventive, it's not a bad little social comedy, and its cast goes a long way toward making it work as well as it does.

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 78

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Comedy
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Deleted Scenes


• IMDb
• Official Site

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