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Movies | The Joneses falls short of exploring the materialistic themes that it raises

Issue: "Flame-outs," May 8, 2010

In 2000 New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell scored a bestseller with The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Part sociological theory, part success manual, the book explored how a certain type of influential individual impacts the purchasing decisions of those around him to create massive (and seemingly instantaneous) demand for a product.

Gladwell posited that it takes three kinds of people to create a consumer ripple-effect: Connectors (social types who seem to have the whole world in their BlackBerry), Mavens (cutting-edge information hounds who wouldn't dream of owning a BlackBerry now that there is the iPhone) and Salesmen (charismatic people who can captivate a crowd with a tale of how their iPhone saved them from certain death). The Joneses (rated R for utterly gratuitous nudity and language) imagines what might happen if a family of Gladwell's tippers moved in next door.

Steve (David Duchovny) and Kate (Demi Moore) Jones and their teenage kids Jenn (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) may seem like the perfect family, but in fact they are employees of a marketing company using radical stealth tactics. Their lives look just like their neighbors', only better. From Steve's riding lawnmower to Kate's designer perfume, everything they own is the latest, the most stylish. But as Steve, the rookie of group, soon learns, it's not enough to simply flash his shiny objects around town. To move product, he and the "family" have to sell themselves.

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At first Steve struggles to match the sales numbers of the rest of his unit. The kids and Kate seem effortlessly to inspire others to want to be like them and, thus, buy like them. A particularly hilarious scene comes when Kate throws a dinner party that sets a new standard of glamor on their block. Besieged by women who want "tips," Kate whispers her secret: Her "caterer" is a line of upscale frozen food. She has already become such a figure of elegance and taste in their minds, the ladies admire her thriftiness rather than look down on it.

Taking a cue from Kate, Steve realizes that to sell to the men, he needs to sell his marriage. The white-collar husbands around him are desperate for affection, desperate to be seen as heroes. So when Steve starts showcasing the gifts and vacations that, he says, result in a great relationship with his wife, his sales shoot through the roof.

It is when the film explores how we are duped into believing that we can not only buy love, we can buy meaning, that it has the most interesting things to say. Unfortunately, almost as soon as writer/director Derrick Borte introduces these threads, he abandons them in favor of sub-stories about Mick being gay, Jenn having father issues, and Steve falling for Kate. After that, all he has time for are a few ham-fisted points about where keeping up with the Joneses ultimately leads.

Envy of those ubiquitous Joneses may be one of the causes of materialism, but it doesn't begin to tell the whole story. Yes, we all want nicer things and more cutting-edge toys, but more than that, we want to be recognized as a particular kind of person. Young celebrities started wearing Ed Hardy's tattoo-inspired clothing to appear countercultural. Rich white kids aped their idols to seem hip. Suburban housewives followed suit in an attempt to appear young. Thus a fashion epidemic (and a particularly obnoxious one, at that) was born. Similar motivations have driven the sales of so-called "green" merchandise.

Though it makes a brave start, The Joneses doesn't delve deeply enough into this and other needs that people try to satisfy with shopping.

It's easy to decry the consequences of consumerism run amok, but it's a lot more difficult to confront the vacuum people are trying to fill with stuff. Rather like the characters that populate its world, The Joneses only skims the surface.

Megan Basham
Megan Basham

Megan, a regular correspondent for WORLD News Group, is a writer and film critic living in Memphis, Tenn.. She is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All.

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