Monday, September 27, 2010

The Joneses

Director: Derrick Borte
Starring: Demi Moore, David Duchovny, Amber Heard, Ben Hollingsworth, Gary Cole, Lauren Hutton, Glenne Headly
Running Time: 96 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The Joneses is the most frustrating kind of good movie to review because it brushes so closely with greatness, only to fall short due to a couple of dumb, easily correctable problems. Calling its central premise inspired or original is an understatement. So much so that the execution could have been completely squandered and the finished product would have still probably turned out okay. It isn't squandered, but there's that feeling that all the potential wasn't realized and there was something really special in there struggling to break through. With a concept like this I question how any film could fully deliver on it without at least some degree of disappointment. For the first hour it looks like it will, but writer/director Derrick Borte sets the bar a little too high for himself and struggles at times to find the right tone before unloading a rushed ending completely inappropriate for the film.

Some movies can get away with a lackluster ending but this can't since all the themes and ideas seem to build toward the story's resolution.  But in all fairness to Borte, it's no easy task getting a high concept like this exactly where it needs to go and he does a serviceable job.  If nothing else, the film deserved more attention than it got during its brief, invisible run in theaters and should be wildly applauded for actually introducing an original idea we haven't seen on screen before. But as impressive as certain ideas can look on paper, following through with them all the way is a different matter altogether.

It helps to know as little as possible about the premise going in but the trailers and commercials give it away because they didn't really have a choice. Without coming clean with its concept, there's nothing to sell the movie on other than its stars, a cruel irony considering this is all about selling. But for the first fifteen minutes we are cleverly left in the dark when Steve Jones (David Duchovny) and his youthful looking wife, Kate (Demi Moore) move into an upper-middle class (i.e. rich) suburban neighborhood with their two high school aged kids, Jennifer (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth). They look like one of those impossibly perfect, great looking families that stepped out of a fancy home magazine, with a residence to match. And for good reason. That's basically what they are. The big secret is that they're a fake family being paid by a stealth marketing company to push new products in the neighborhood. Logically, if they're liked, everyone will want to to own what they have. They're selling themselves as much as they are the products with their manager, KC (Lauren Hutton) tracking the progress. On her sixth husband, the driven Kate is the veteran of the "unit" and on her first "head of household" assignment is supervising Steve, a green as grass rookie learning the ropes, but it gets complicated when their working arrangement evolves into something more and their "kids" begin to emotionally unravel from pretending to be what they're not. The Joneses also have to deal with the consequences of the bonds they've formed with those in the neighborhood, real or fake as they may be.

The expression "Keeping up with the Joneses" could seem dated to some, but the idea behind it definitely isn't. Hearing the title of the movie I couldn't help but laugh at the fact that one of my favorite sayings was being adapted into a feature film as I've been known to use it every time it seems applicable, which is a lot more often than you'd think.  Knowing the premise going in I was still impressed with how it was slowly and mysteriously introduced so that like the neighbors we're not initially sure what to make of these Joneses or what their deal is. When we do is when the movie really comes alive in its first sixty minutes, fully exploiting all the possibilities and implications of their deception. An important touch is that the Joneses are actually good salespeople because they don't overdo it and the film already has a built-in excuse for product placement, which Borte's script doesn't abuse by shoving it down our throats. In this sense the film, while completely original in conceit, does have definite thematic shadings of The Truman Show and Pleasantville in its critique of American materialism and consumerism.

The casting is so spot-on it's scary, with the choices in actors serving the themes exceptionally well. Who wouldn't buy a golf club David Duchovny recommended? Who could have possibly been a better choice to play Kate than Demi Moore, an actress who's basically sold to us as an anti-aging commodity? And is there a high school girl who wouldn't want look, dress like and BE Amber Heard? Moore gives her best performance in ages as the ambitious sales leader, in addition to looking as young as she has in years, which isn't an entirely irrelevant point when you consider the nature of her role. Duchovny brings the sly charm in what's kind of a watered down version of his Hank Moody character on Californication, making his best case so far for big screen leading man status.  In smaller but still suitably developed roles, the increasingly prolific Heard continues her streak of nailing (literally in this case) any supporting part she's given and newcomer Hollingsworth effectively sketches out the teen poser harboring a secret of his own. And since they're both supposed to be adults playing teenagers, we now finally have a movie with a suitable excuse for casting adults as teenagers.

The movie attempts to go to dark places the second act requires even if it feels a little out of step with the sitcom-style feel that's present throughout. The darkest center around married couple, Summer and Larry (Glenne Headly and Gary Cole), next-door neighbors struggling to keep up with Joneses. Headley and Cole are two of the more underrated character actors working today so it's no surprise they turn mere sketches into real people worth caring about and fill in the blanks of their slightly underwritten roles, alternating seamlessly between the comedy and drama. When the wheels start to fly off the Joneses perfect fake life Borte seems to want to turn this into a scathing commentary carrying an impact similar to more dramatic entries in suburban dysfunction like American Beauty or the more recent Revolutionary Road. That's when he starts losing his way and grasp on tone before wimping out with an abrupt, unsatisfying finish that damages the film's overall credibility. The worst thing he could have done with a premise this strong was attempt to spell everything out for us, which he does with an embarrassing soapbox-style speech that comes abruptly out of left field to wrap things up in a conventional Hollywood way. He also does the second worst thing in giving far too much emphasis to the romantic angle between the two leads. The idea that this sales team family are co-workers under the same roof is intriguing and Moore and Duchovny have chemistry, but her character is such a humorless ice queen it's difficult to grasp what Steve sees in her (well, at least from a personality standpoint). This sub-plot that should be downplayed in favor of the darker elements of the script instead takes center stage at the worst possible time, making the film feel almost like a fluffy romantic comedy.

I'll concede to some bias here since dark, suburban social commentaries are among my favorite types of pictures but Borte at least had the concept for a real winner in his hands, only to let it slip through his fingers. With a firm command over the look of sprawling, sunny suburbia he's a better director than writer, which isn't to say he's a bad writer because it takes a lot of talent to even come up with an idea like this, much less push it as far as he does. But the last thing that should be accompanying this film this ambitious at its conclusion is a forgettable feeling. With a final act that reeks of studio interference, I wouldn't mind seeing a hidden director's cut or even a full-blown remake that follows its dark path to the ending its premise promises. Despite an admirable effort to do something different, The Joneses tries to please everybody, and ironically becomes guilty of engaging in some of the same tactics it's sending up.

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