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What's in Their Wallets

Keeping up with “The Joneses” requires a sizable wad of patience.

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It had to be a happy meeting for the producer who first learned that one of the stars of “The Joneses” would be consumer products. He or she probably stayed up all night with the screenplay, about a fake family that exists to influence the buying habits of other Americans, dreaming of the cross-promotional possibilities. The sodas! The sneakers! The gadgets! The Audis! They're all in here, and then some, in a slick mainstream film about a family that exists to influence the buying habits of other families. The surprising thing about “The Joneses” is that it questions the values that it seems to promote. Despite a penchant for glamorizing excessive spending, this is the rare mainstream movie — the rare movie — to criticize consumer culture, and to suggest that it is destructive.

The movie opens with the Jones family — Steve (David Duchovny), Kate (Demi Moore), Jenn (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) — moving into a stately suburban home that would make Tony Soprano envious. Envy is the idea. Steve, Kate and the kids seem perfect, but they're not even related. They're employees in a company that put them together to live among real families while pitching products they're given to use. Like product testers, professional reviewers, actors and undercover agents all rolled into one, they simply live well while constantly showing off the latest and greatest cars, tools, clothes and food. Their goal is to make a lot of new friends, and get them ogling and talking about their stuff in order to cause a ripple effect of desire and buying. The Joneses' new friends don't even know they're being sold to.

What the family does is an update of an old idea, which the movie plays up by offering them neighbors, Larry (Gary Cole) and Summer (Glenne Headly), who are deeply impressed by the Joneses' success while trying to start their own home business. Summer is a sort of Avon rep for a line of beauty products. Steve and Kate wink and smirk at her clumsy and antiquated product party, where she plays a pitch video on the TV and hands out samples.

The Joneses are vastly next-gen by comparison. When they have their party, no one is the wiser as they smoothly incorporate product pitches. The entire house is on display. Kate leads a tour of the furniture, then serves hors d'oeuvres and waits until someone asks who did her catering before pulling out a few boxes of frozen sushi to show off. The implication to the partygoers is that they can have as successful a marriage and as happy a life if they too buy the right things. The catch is that some of them start to ruin their lives trying, which puts a damper on all those product placements.

“The Joneses” is by no means a classic movie. It's not even all that classy. Its premise unfolds predictably and feels trendy, given Web 2.0's current popularity. Aesthetically it's very much like the plethora of high-concept movies churned out every year by the studios, chock-full of montages and other tropes and destined for reruns on pay-cable channels. The plot tries hard to be a dark comedy but isn't nearly funny enough. The actors in the family feel thrown together without much thought at how they'll mesh, an unintentional dose of reality the movie doesn't need.

The last-act crisis, involving a neighbor who overextends himself financially, is maudlin and heavy-handed, and solved with a particularly lazy coda. But the movie comes down surprisingly hard on our consumer culture, and it's worth remembering how few Hollywood films even look at it except to glorify it.

“The Joneses” is an often overly polished embellishment, to be sure, but we do live in the world where people willingly subscribe to an economic system that is no less ridiculous, in which people toil and drudge for worthless goods with little thought to the essential futility of it all. That “The Joneses” is unusual in noting this says a lot more about the state of things than the film probably intends. It's too bad that it's not very good. A movie that decries the commercialization of life is one thing. But it won't fly if it doesn't make any money. (R) 93 min. HHIII

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