Keeping Up with the Joneses. Or Not.

Emily Colette Wilkinson | Posted on 04/26/10

What the neighbors don't know is that the new family's covetable stuff and impeccable grooming are no mere accidents of good taste and great genes, but a calculated plot.

The Joneses

Diirected by Derrick Borte


Meet the Joneses, the protagonists of Derrick Borte's debut feature film and the latest in a spate of American imposters. The spruce, immaculately coifed, and accessorized Kate and Steve Jones (Demi Moore and David Duchovny) and their equally natty teenage children Jenn (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) are the newest arrivals in a ritzy suburban development. Even by the high standards of their well-heeled neighbors, the Joneses are the fairest of them all and everyone wants a piece of what they've got: their POM-tinis, their Van Cleef & Arpels earrings, their YSL handbags.

What the neighbors don't know is that the new family's covetable stuff and impeccable grooming are no mere accidents of good taste and great genes, but a calculated plot. The Joneses, it turns out, are a stealth-marketing cell posing as the perfect suburban family-the better to sell their neighbors every accessory the good life might require (and a good many beyond the wildest of American dreams: for example, a rider mower with built-in TV). After all, as the tan, handsome, perpetually affable Steve Jones (Duchovny) tells a group of new golfing buddies from the neighborhood, clapping one of them chummily on the back: "Whoever dies with the best toys wins." 

Of course, it's Steve and his "family" who'll always have the best toys and have them before anyone else. Life Image, the stealth-marketing firm that employs them sees to it their home and persons are laden with the latest in covetable gadgets and baubles.  The real "best toys," however, are the Joneses themselves. Taking their cues from Réné Girard's theory of mimetic desire, Life Image knows that if they can make potential clients want the Joneses, sales of whatever the family wears, eats, plays, and drives will follow. "If people want you, they'll want what you've got," explains the Jones family marketing cell's boss (played by the eternally glamorous Lauren Hutton). 

And everyone wants the Joneses. Kate and Steve are not just beautiful and well dressed; they're still passionate and flirtatious while their neighbors' marriages languish in drab sexlessness and infidelity.  At a party they throw for their neighbors, Kate, dressed in a form-fitting leopard print dress, her long locks lustrous, her diamond earrings sparkling Van Cleef-ily, leans over Steve while he's playing an arm-chair controlled video game system with several neighborhood husbands.  "Are you showing off your new toys?" she asks him in her Demi Moore-ish husky whisper, kissing him gratuitously for the benefit of their audience (all, understandably, gaping at her). "And what's your favorite toy?" She continues. Flummoxed by the real sensuality of this kiss in the midst of their sham marriage, the pleased and bewildered Steve manages to answer: " are."

And so you can hardly blame Steve's next-door neighbor Larry (Gary Cole), a bit of a sad sack, for wanting a little of what Steve's got (or seems to have). Larry's own marriage has languished in celibate monotony for years and when he follows Steve's lead and begins giving his wife Summer (played deftly by Glenne Headly) lavish gifts for no reason, the marital passion does indeed rekindle. With a newfound spring in his step and his trusty, charismatic pal Steve at his side, Larry gives himself a dashing new look to befit his new lease on love: a red Audi convertible, new clothes, new sunglasses (all, of course, a version of something he's seen on Steve). 

But the joke's on Larry: you can't keep up with the Joneses. It's their job to have what you want, to leave you wanting more, to awaken new desires as soon as the last are sated. So Larry learns when, days after he buys his Audi TT in imitation of Steve, Steve turns up driving the sexier and more expensive Audi R8. "You just ruined his day," Mick tells Steve, as Larry drives past Steve's new car looking crestfallen. 

TMany critics of The Joneses have taken the film as a critique of consumer culture. But compare it to, say, Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho (or Mary Herron's film version of Ellis' novel). Ellis' offers his psychopath antihero, the impeccably polished, sadistic Patrick Bateman, as the monstrous birth of 1980's Manhattan's moneyed, banking set and its monomaniacal devotion to wealth, power, sex, beauty, the finer things. Bateman's uncontrollable appetite for violence, his constant anxiety, his compulsive, quasi-scientific cataloging of the brands of clothes and objets he wears and buys and covets, his spiritual desolation make for an almost unbearably harrowing vision of the psychic and social consequences of single-minded materialism.

Likewise Sam Mendes' American Beauty (whose blood red American Beauty roses also grown in the Jones family's garden): Mendes' film confronts the emotional and spiritual dispossession that American dreamers bring upon themselves in the pursuit of the four-bedroom colonial, the Mercedes, the Chippendale sideboard. Even the CW's television series Gossip Girl, a melodramedy about a group of poor-little-rich Upper East Side teenagers, casts a cannier eye over the absurdities, cruelties, and spiritual desolation of the American gilded life than does The Joneses.  (Not to mention higher brow imported rivals like George Perec's Les Choses or Hans Weingartener's The Edukators.)

The Joneses is very much about consumer culture, but it's not ultimately critical of it. Part of the film's failure as consumer culture critique is that it is more concept than argument.  Director Derrick Borte's concept-the stealth-marketing cell disguised as a family-is provocative and it yields a few great lines and good comic scenes, but Borte never really interrogates his concept or asks us to cast a cold eye over its faults. What does it mean to impersonate a family, to gain the good faith of your neighbors, to use that faith to exploit them?  Borte seems too taken with his counterfeit family to explore these questions and, instead, offers humanizing subplots in which the Joneses appear sympathetic victims rather than predators. (SPOILER ALERT) Mick is gay and closeted and when he impulsively kisses a male friend, the friend responds by punching him in the face; Jenn's having an affair with a married man and is brokenhearted when he dumps her to return to his wife. Even stealth marketers, we learn, are vulnerable and hungry for love and acceptance.

But they're still predators, a point made brutally by the film's climax: (SPOILER ALERT) Summer, Larry's wife, following a trail of past-due credit card and mortgage bills from Larry's office into their yard, finds her husband dead in the pool, tied with garden hose to his absurd rider-mower with built in TV (his first Steve-inspired purchase).  In the aftermath of the tragedy-Summer sobbing over her husband's corpse, gathered neighbors, police and ambulance-a shaken, repentant Steve makes a public confession and unmasks his family as the con artists they are while the rest of the Joneses flee the scene in their Audis (to begin their confidence trick anew in another posh gated community). 

If Borte had meant the movie as a critique of consumer culture and its pushers (of which he was one; he directed commercials and infomercials before turning to feature films), I think the movie would have ended in the aftermath of Larry's suicide, with Steve Jones the lone, sadder-but-wiser hero. And a powerful ending it might have been.  The film's abrupt turn from light comedy with mild dramatic lowlights to full-blown tragedy is genuinely shocking. And haunting still, a week later, the image of Larry's pale body tied to the mower submerged in the pool, arms waving lifelessly. If the symbolism is a little heavy-handed in retrospect, the image is still a chilling icon of the real emotional and spiritual devastation that decisions and failures in our material lives can have-the kind of devastations that many Americans are still wrestling with right now.  And if he'd been really intent on a critique of consumerism and materialism, Borte might've gone even further: I imagine a final sequence in which Steve burns down his family McMansion as a final symbolic renunciation of his former life.

But Borte does not end with the pool scene or my imagined inferno, nor does he develop Steve's moral epiphany in much detail. The film's final scene gives us Steve and Kate, a few weeks later, driving off happily into the future together-and driving still one of the sleek Audis they've been comped by Life Image. Now they're a real beautiful couple in love, not the fake one they were-but you're pretty sure, as the credits roll, that when they get wherever they're going they'll still be dressed to kill, live in a McMansion, drive that Audi. And that their material trappings will be, as they have been throughout the movie, Kate and Steve's most pronounced features. (Duchovny, to his credit, tries mightily to give Steve as much personality as he can, but the script doesn't really give him much room to maneuver.) By the oldest of genre conventions, a marriage (in this case, a drive off into forever) means comedy-that all's well that ends well, that our hero and heroine are sympathetic and have been rewarded for their pains rather than punished for their errors (as in tragedy). But how can I revel in a happy ending-even understand such an ending-for characters that exist most vividly as amoral collectors of lavish objects?

No, I don't understand Borte's ending as a cultural critique. It seems more a shrug of resignation: This is just how we live now-the lies, the materialism-and it's not really so bad-it's actually kind of amusing. And in this shrug, Borte echoes a large coterie of contemporary television writers who've lately been drawn to the idea of the American imposter: Showtime's Weeds portrays the double life of Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), a SoCal suburban mom who has a racy, violent secret life as a marijuana dealer; AMC's Mad Men follows the doings of the mysterious Don Draper (Jon Hamm), an ad man in early 1960's New York whose picture perfect American life is built on lies and a stolen identity and whose genius as an ad man reflects these pretenses; In The Riches, a family of Gypsy travelers steal the identities and new gated community home of a dead lawyer and his wife and try to pass as "buffers" (their traveler slang for moneyed, law abiding suburbanites). In HBO's Big Love, a successful businessman, his three wives and eight children try to conceal their polygamy in a bustling Salt Lake suburb.

So The Joneses is merely the latest bloom in this flowering of American frauds. Like its fellows, it seems to take it for granted that secret lives and deception are at the heart of modern American life. "Do you have a secret life?" Kate Jones asks her husband coyly at an expensive restaurant they're at with neighbors. Seconds before, Steve had been recognized by an old friend who threatened to blow his cover. The resourceful Kate saves the day though: she summons the staff to strong-arm the friend away and smoothes over the trouble with her suggestive double entendre. Steve smiles knowingly and proposes a toast "to secret lives," which their neighbors second warmly and obliviously-the suggestion of real fraud all but forgotten.

Collectively, The Joneses, Weeds, Mad Men, The Riches, and Big Love suggest that we're become pretty jaded about deceit and secret lives. (Understandable, perhaps, in an era of unending real double-life scandals, Tiger Woods' and John Edwards' the most recent examples.) Weeds, particularly, imagines suburbs comically/depressingly rife with hidden adultery, drug abuse, pornography, criminally incompetent parenting, and sexual frustration. Of course, it's hard not to feel fraudulent when faced with neat little rows of neat little houses in a development with a name like Majestic or Eden Falls.  Who could possibly live a life beatific enough to be a truly worthy citizen of Eden Falls or Majestic? 

Not many-as most of these imposter-protagonists discover pretty quickly. They're hardly the only ones on the block playing charades with their lives.  And ultimately, in all of these series-as in the ending of The Joneses-the authentic life looks a lot like the fake life, or the two are so interdependent that it's hard to tell where the lie ends and the truth begins.  Unlike their nineteenth and twentieth century ancestors-Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Clare Kendry of Nella Larsen's Passing, Edith Wharton's Lily Bart in The House of Mirth-for whom the price of being discovered as a counterfeit was death, ostracism, or capture, our American imposters seem to float on, largely untouched by moral pangs or material consequences.

So what does this mean in the end, this swell of thriving imposters? I think it means that we have a more fluid, accommodating view of the self as consisting of many different selves or shades of self, and that we have a new (sometimes bemused) tolerance for the moral ambiguity that seems to infects most human lives. But whether and to what degree you're comfortable with this is a matter of moral taste. Maybe Derrick Borte is right to shrug at his Joneses' threadbare moral fiber and give them that happy ending. Or maybe I'm right and he should have burned their house down. And, as they say about matters of taste, moral and otherwise: de gustibus non est disputandum.




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