He may work for the Fox Business Network, but financial guru Dave Ramsey is usually right, and never more so than his mantra, “Don’t keep up with the Joneses. The Joneses are broke.”
If we have learned anything from the recent financial meltdown, it’s that America’s consumerist addictions are both pathological and fixed. It’s true that lower-income households’ indefatigable belief that they will some day be rich keeps them poor, but it’s also true that blue-chip corporations feed that delusion on a daily basis by dangling carrots of upward mobility on TV, in print ads, and, with the help of lobbying efforts, literally everywhere you turn. Have you been advertised to at a urinal yet? I have.
This need for product-driven betterment, and the cynical research behind it, infects the rich just as easily. In The Joneses, the startlingly adept debut from writer-director Derrick Borte, David Duchovny and Demi Moore play the Joneses, a seemingly perfect and wealthy family with two kids (Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth) who move into a sprawling mansion in an unnamed suburban town and immediately inspire the envy of the other residents. They have all the newest gadgets, wear cutting-edge fashion, and drive fresh-from-the-factory sports cars. They seem to have it all, and they’re delighted to tell you about everything they own, and how it can improve your sex life/golf game/high-school popularity.
These Joneses, it turns out in a brilliant cautionary twist, are salesmen, corporate plants employed by a market-research company in order to spread the viral word about retail products in the most viral sense.
Taking their cue (and key phrases) from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point – “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts,” — these Joneses are both the “persuaders” and the “mavens” in one attractive, sexy package. They must use their demonstrative powers to coerce their neighbors — or “connectors” — to buy, buy, buy, even if they can’t afford to keep up. It’s the anthropomorphization of capitalism in your own backyard.
The story beats are familiar: Duchovny and Moore develop feelings for each other, the kids get in trouble, and the need to confess looms. “This family is fucked up,” admits Duchovny. He’s not wrong. But Borte’s polished treatment of the material feels confidently in service of his point — it’s an assuredness that reminded me of David O. Russell — and the actors involved commit to their situation wholeheartedly and entertainingly. By the time it all comes crashing down (and it must in a cautionary tale like this), the consequences never feel forced or false. To co-opt a stupid phrase that trumpeted a particular Oscar nominee last year, this is the actual “movie of the moment,” only that moment has lasted for 30 years and we’re only now waking up to a simple reality: the system is fixed. — Justin Strout