Hollywood hasn't always been able to handle satires of materialism/commercialism. When they work well--see: Josie and the Pussycats, George Romero's original Dawn of the Dead--they curveball arrive through the prism of genre. Perhaps that's the fatal mistake Derrick Borte makes with his writing/directing debut, The Joneses. Ostensibly an attack on crass consumerism, The Joneses gives away its defining conceit in its trailer, making its first half feel anticlimactic and sending its second half off in search of a rudder. What starts out as a rather witty exploration quickly becomes a schizophrenic story and ends up being one of the more genuinely odd, if completely banal, Hollywood flicks out right now.
The movie opens up with a young, attractive family of four moving into a luxury home, outfitted with luxury goods, located inside a comfortably white, affluent gated community. Of course, the Joneses--Steve (David Duchovny) and Kate (Demi Moore) and the high-school-aged Jenn (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingswoth)--look like the perfect family because they were picked to represent that very ideal. They're all employees of Lifestyle Management, a marketing firm headed by KC (a slumming Lauren Hutton) that operates on the simple idea of monkey see, monkey do. If people see the Joneses being happy and successful, people will want the things they have, and Lifestyle Media increases its clients' sales by embedding its "stealth marketers" in pockets of wealth to advertise by word of mouth. Consider the Joneses--yup, the people others proverbially want to keep up with--the stormtroopers of lifestyle porn.
No spoilers here: all that is revealed in the trailer. Sadly, though, The Joneses is tone deaf to its own intelligence, and instead vacillates between a fish-out-of-water comedy--this is former golf pro turned car salesman Steve's first assignment, and he's adjusting slowly--and making generic observations about the empty lives of the people who have the most stuff. Both the movie and the characters try to make product placements feel casual, part of everyday conversation, but employing the very strategy the movie wants to address is less commentary than admitting the obvious: Sometimes, the Joneses are trying to sell their peers on things, and sometimes, The Joneses is trying to sell its audience on things. How meta somethingorother.
Worse, though, the movie never grows any teeth, and about halfway through, the attempts at satire are shelved for a facile morality play as the fake family endures ordinary upper-middle-class problems and starts behaving like an actual family. In its prime, The Simpsons upturned everything middle-class sacred in the service of preserving traditional heterosexual family values with a mischievous glee that skewered the very assumption that this unit was something to be held above all else in America. The Joneses does just the opposite, embracing the notion of the affluent, middle-class, suburban family as a pure product of shallow consumerism and slowly devolves into a spineless romance, parting with the fleeting whimsy that in a world run amok with wealth accumulation and getting ahead, the morally bankrupt and beautifully shallow really do deserve each other. Isn't that sweet?