Every once in a while, a movie comes along that defines its time and place with an articulation and an accuracy so precise that there simply isn’t anything else to say (in the words of Sam Elliott’s character in “The Big Lebowski,” “Sometimes, there’s a man…”). Kubrick did it with “Dr. Strangelove.” Whether you like him or not, John Hughes did it time and time again from “The Breakfast Club” to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
And from the looks of it, writer/director Derrick Borte is trying to do it with “The Joneses.” “The Joneses” stars David Duchovny, Demi Moore, Amber Heard, and Ben Hollingsworth as a group of beautiful Americans who are put together into a fake family unit (the Joneses) that exists as a kind of real life product placement: people see beautiful people using products, and they want to buy those same products.
While Hollingsworth and Heard have yet to truly break out, it remains to be seen whether Moore has anything left in her. The last film of hers I saw, 2007’s “Flawless,” was pretty awful. Duchovny definitely made a serious comeback with “Californication” as the hilarious and moving Hank Moody, and I typically find him to be a pleasure to watch. The problem I have is the concept of the film. The relevance of “The Joneses” is pretty obvious: the excesses and frauds of American consumerism and greed, the vapidity of the American dream, etc.
American filmmakers are struggling to find a language to express the disappointment, frustration, and heartache of the greatest recession since the Great Depression, but it doesn’t look like anybody has really done it yet. Jason Reitman tried with “Up in the Air,” but despite its critical acclaim, it doesn’t seem to have achieve the status to which it aspired. Borte, a relative unknown, may have something with “The Joneses,” but this doesn’t seem to be the right medium for the kind of raw, expressive power necessary in a situation like this. That isn’t to say that a reflection on tragedy can’t come in the form of comedy. After all, look at “Strangelove.”
The problem with “the Joneses,” at least from the trailer, is that its marketing team is trying to skirt the line between artistic legitimacy and mass marketability. The comedy portrayed in the trailer results from the sexual tension between Moore’s and Duchovny’s characters: her character is his boss and is only playing the role of Mrs. Jones; she isn’t actually interested in him. If the brunt of the film’s comedy comes from this kind of cutesy foreplay humor, this little birdy ain’t gonna fly.
If Borte really wants to get at the Great American Heartache by making a comedy, it’s going to have to be dark, caustic, brutal, and ruthless. If the final product is watered down at all, the entire project will be a failure. Admittedly, it’s a tough situation to be in. On the one hand, an edgy movie that looks as though it will alienate audiences won’t attract investors. On the other, a movie that grabs a huge audience but does so at the expense of content is always frustrating, especially if it contains even the inkling of what could have been a great movie but stopped at the stage of being a great concept.
Mr. Borte, it seems like you have the concept. I’m begging you: don’t ruin things on the execution. “The Joneses” hits theaters April 16.