So something called Keeping up with the Joneses, a dull and lifeless action/comedy starring Zach Galifianakis and Jon Hamm, opened this past Friday, promising to do paltry business at the box office and satisfy not one single audience member unfortunate enough to see it.
However, if there is one film which people should see featuring the idea of being fascinated with the mystique behind your neighbor’s lifestyle, it should be the 2010 comedy The Joneses starring David Duchovny and Demi Moore, which cleverly puts a fresh spin on a tired plot device.
In The Joneses, Duchovny and Moore play Steve and Kate Jones, who along with son Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) and daughter Jenn (Amber Heard) comprise the picture perfect Joneses; a well-to-do family who has just moved into an upscale suburb. The Joneses are immediately the envy of the town, thanks to their attractiveness as a family and their chic and trendy lifestyle which comes complete with the newest cars and latest fashions. But this family has a secret. Namely that they aren’t a real family. They’re a team of unrelated stealth marketers whose job is to move from town to town posing as a family in an effort to make sure every friend they make and neighbor they encounter eventually buys whatever piece of jewelry they wear and cell phone they talk on.
One of the most interesting features of The Joneses is the psychology and glee attached to the thought of doing the kind of work this team of sales people do, which flat out means having to live two different kinds of lives. On the one hand, there is virtually no space for a person to be who they really are, surrendering most true aspects of themselves and their personality to the job. At the same time, however, there’s the highly intriguing prospect of being able to be someone you’re not and in some ways, could never be. In a way, the whole lifestyle is on par with working for the CIA in terms of the secrecy and ghost-like existence involved. The Joneses shows the price of that kind of life beautifully, whether through scenes such as Steve getting dressed according to a planned schedule of what clothing needs to be pushed to sell, or when a female classmate says to Mick, “I like you…you’re not like one of these lame posers around here.”
The film’s comedy definitely comes from the moments when the line between family and business is wonderfully blurred. When Jenn is stealing some of the perfume Kate has been assigned in order to sneak off to a rendezvous with an older man, Kate walks in on her with the instant suspicion that she’s sneaking out, yet only asks, “Is that a brand you think kids would like,” with stern parental concern. It becomes only a matter of time when real family problems start to show up, blurring the lines even further, such as Mick getting involved in a drunk driving accident and Jenn having her heart broken, which prompts Steve to explain to a frustrated Kate, “It’s natural that a family has problems.” When she shouts back, “We’re not a family,” Ben takes a moment and replies, “A unit?”
The idea of being just as good as, if not better than, your neighbors in terms of lifestyle has plagued American society for decades and probably always will. Yet this movie turns it on its head by playing with the notion so brilliantly. The Joneses intelligently and unabashedly pokes fun at the idea of trying to have as many possessions as your neighbor and the truth about how it corrupts your lifestyle rather than defines it. The film pulls no punches with regard to how dependent and materialistic society is and takes every opportunity to illustrate it by even stretching things to the point to suggest that it’s things we like, rather than the people holding them. While the film is a comedy first and foremost, The Joneses shows how such a way of thinking and living can so easily corrupt the overall family as a whole.
It’s obvious when an actor’s performance is bolstered by their love of the script they’re working from, and The Joneses is the perfect example of that. Everyone turns in some of the most fun and uncharacteristic work of their careers. Moore and Duchovny especially enjoy some of their best latter-day leading roles here. Likewise, Heard and Hollingsworth (who at times looks a bit too old to pass as a teenager) both manage to infuse their characters with some real moments as do Gary Cole and Glenne Headley as the main targets/victims of the family’s mission.
While critics applauded the film for the inventiveness of its plot, praising it as timely, smart, and engaging, The Joneses didn’t become the breakout indie hit many felt it should have been. This was echoed by the small audience reception the film received as a result of a somewhat meager publicity campaign.
In the end, it’s incredibly hard not to be attracted or at least somewhat impressed by the brilliance of the overall scheme at hand. In fact, some may find themselves hilariously theorizing whether or not such an outrageous business practice actually happens or, at the very least, serves as a sign of where things might be headed. The Joneses eventually gets incredibly darker than most would it imagine it could, killing some of the fun and flash appeal which had come before. However, it’s a natural way for the story to go, affirming the film’s credibility and signaling a grave warning of what strong aspirations of such a life can lead to.