Friday, October 12, 2012

The Joneses (2009)

I'm sure The Joneses writers were familiar with the Arcadia episode of The X-Files in which Mulder and Scully go undercover as a suburban couple in order to investigate mysterious disappearances in the neighborhood. Even the scene where Mulder snuggled onto Scully's bed and invited her to join him was replicated early in The Joneses. The difference is, by then we'd known Mulder and Scully for 6 years, we don't know Steve and Kate (The Joneses) at all except through the fake family roles they are playing when the film starts.

Steve, Kate and the younger Mick and Jen are high-powered sales people who pretend to be a family of four who move into an upper-class suburban neighborhood to get the area residents' covetous juices flowing, in envy of the expensive clothes, products and gadgets that the Joneses constantly parade. As a domestic quartet, The Joneses subtly promote the gear supplied by commercial clients to their neighbors, inspiring the envious to buy the same merchandise for themselves: cars, appliances, clothes, hair products, etc.

The fact that the Joneses aren't really family members is revealed slowly as we observe their professional and distant interactions when they're alone in contrast to the phony display of sunshiny affection they display when they're around others.

The problem is, we don't know the real people behind the facades when the movie starts and we haven't learned much more by the time it ends. We don't really care about the characters and the movie's humor is mild at best. Laughs alone don't make this a must see and there's not much else left to draw one in.

We learn that Kate (Demi Moore) is the most experienced sales person and she is in charge of the Jones' team. She has her hands full, because Steve is a novice and gets off to a shaky start. She put her career on the line by hiring him. Jen, is ruled by her libido, first climbing into "Dad" Steve's bed (after Kate rejects him) and then falling for a married man, a relationship that threatens to bring the entire sales ruse crumbling down, since Jen is supposed to be a teenager, selling goods to the youth set, rather than angering the middle-aged, would-be consumers around them, with her sexual contretemps.

Mick, the man who plays the Jones brother is a gay man forced to play a heterosexual teen. He's expected to acquire a hip girlfriend and enlist her help in selling products to their peers. He's too attracted to the girl's brother to concentrate on his job and when he throws a party for drunken teenagers, which results in an accident, The Joneses' sales scheme is, once again, nearly overturned.

We're supposed to be touched when the kids' close escapes help bring Kate and Steve together. Kate initially rebuffs Steve's romantic advances and rightly so. We didn't see these people train together. We don't see their work relationship evolve. All we know is that Steve is new on the job and immediately wants into Kate's bed. It doesn't make the beginnings of a great love affair. Kate is not immune to Steve's charms, but she wants to keep things strictly business between them. Alone at night, she re-watches his interview tape on which he reveals he is looking for the woman who will help him become a better man. She is touched by these words, but I think it's an odd thing for a job applicant to say on video and it doesn't humanize Steve for me or help me understand why Kate wants to reach out to him on a personal level.

When Mick's friend is involved in a drunk driving accident, after the party Mick threw at The Jones' house, career-driven Kate feels its her duty to report the incident to their boss (Lauren Hutton) and fears retribution. She sulks at the prospect and when Steve comes into her room to comfort her, they end up sleeping together. This minimal bonding is supposed to be enoough to convince the audience that the two have fallen in love. Without the two having shared much else, Steve is soon trying to convince Kate to give the sales life up and live in the "real" world for a change. Have a true family, instead of a fake one. Come home to meet his parents. She's reluctant and who can blame her. Steve is 45. This is the best job he's ever had and I'm not sure how they would support themselves if they give up the jobs they have.

The movie peaks when a neighbor goes into foreclosure trying "to keep up with the Joneses" and buy all the expensive toys that he sees them with. On the verge of losing his house and the material wife who depends on his money, the guy commits suicide. The neighbors gather in shock. A guilt-ridden Steve loudly confesses to everyone that he's not who they think he is. He's been playing a role, using them. They aren't his friends. They're his customers. During this speech which carries none of the emotional punch that the writers hoped it possessed, Kate is gathering up the rest of her sales team, abandoning the mission and leaving the mess Steve has created as fast as she can. They drive off, while he's still confessing.

Kate, Jen and Mick are soon set up in a new town as a new family, with a new "Dad" playing Steve's old role. Steve finds her and begs her to take off with him. She refuses, but as he is walking away, she catches up with him and they drive off together, into the sunset -- well dusk. The ending doesn't work because none of the relationships they tried to form leading up to it succeeded.

They should have spent 30 more minutes bonding the characters, instead of showing them in sales mode, if they wanted to pull off a finale we cared about. The characters moved through the script, rather than progressed as people. Cold Kate softened because she was supposed to, not because anything really happened that would realistically spark her change.

The fake family premise might have had promise, but it needed to be played for either sharper laughs or deeper feeling to pay off.

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