Dear The Joneses,
Predictability in storytelling isn’t always a bad thing. Narrative shorthand can allow for a certain level of comfort in an otherwise uncomfortable environment. It can also allow a story with a deeper message to more fully develop the message, rather than spend time on the specifics of the character arcs. The key to executing a predictable narrative without feeling stale or tired is to dress the proceedings, to fill the moments with interesting characters who are well acted, and to create enough new spins on old ideas to liven up the proceedings.
You manage to be predictable in terms of narrative and sometimes in terms of details, though you do throw in enough new or interesting ideas to level off these detractions. Are you a complete success? No, sadly you allow yourself to fall victim to a kind of narrative atrophy that robs you of the energetic finish you would have needed to be truly worthwhile. But you are not a failure either, because in terms of novelty of plot and performance you still find plenty to offer the casual viewer.
You begin as the story of a seemingly perfect family comprised of a mother, father, and two children. They move into their grand house, they greet visiting neighbors as a family, and eagerly show off all of their expensive and lavish toys. And this is the hint at this family’s sinister truth – they are plants, actors paid to live a life of luxury in hopes of encouraging neighbors and classmates to buy the same items that have.
As a means of marketing, this is insidious and inspired. People in the upscale neighborhood the Joneses move into are eager to snatch up the shoes, clothes, golf clubs, and jewelry that the family enjoys so much. The perfection and seeming happiness of the family acts as an unspoken endorsement of every item they use.
After an entertaining montage of ‘sales’ you delve into the murky truth of this unit of salesmen though. The ‘husband’ is being eaten alive by the lies they are pushing, the ‘daughter’ is a barely concealed nymphomaniac, the ‘wife’ is a harried manager trying to keep hold. The ‘son’ seems the most normal, which may or may not be the best sale of all.
The problem is that the series of complications and obstacles that arise from this base are painfully obvious right from the start. Romantic complications, wrestling with the morality of lying to people who trust you, treatises on consumerism and the death of genuine interaction in the fact of one-upmanship. All of these things will be faced and dealt with, to varying degrees of success, by the time you are done.
Luckily David Duchovny lends the protagonist, ‘father’ Steve, the kind of effortless charm and shaggy good-natured mischievousness that has become his staple. All of the other actors fill their characters’ adequately, but Duchovny allows Steve to be a man who may not have a moral awakening but at least an existential one, which is somehow more fulfilling.
So what is the final verdict on our time together? Am I disappointed that I took the time to see you? Not at all. You were a light, breezy film with a good – if not a little tame – sense of humor and a photogenic cast and interesting premise. Predictability isn’t a murderous transgression in the face of this lightness of touch, and in the end you somehow allowed yourself to be less preachy then you had the potential to be. Though there too lies another issue I might take with you. Considering our down economy and seemingly unending rush towards consumerism there was a lot to be said about a family selling people on a lifestyle they might not need or be able to afford. Aside from a third act moment of conflict and contrition, this idea is left primarily as an uncommented-upon subtext.
So I may see you again, on some slow day when I am looking for comedy, thoughtfulness, and simplicity.
Until then, it was nice meeting you.
Brian J. Roan