Our self-image of American life has been entwined with consumer goods since long before Norman Rockwell painted for Coca-Cola. In recent years, product placement has grown increasingly insidious. The scarily plausible premise of the new film "The Joneses" imagines advertising going one small step forward.
Writer-director Derrick Borte imagines a scenario in which corporate actors are cast as a family and slyly moved into a community to push products on their new neighbors. David Duchovny plays the neophyte "dad" placed with "mom" Demi Moore and two purportedly teenage children: "daughter" Jenn (Amber Heard) and "son" Mick (Ben Hollingsworth). Moore's Kate is high-strung about her nuclear family's productivity, as she's chasing the dream of rising through the ranks of the company that employs them all (represented by the wittily cast ex-model Lauren Hutton).
Duchovny's Steve represents a triple threat. First, his numbers are soft, but later the student surpasses the master and, what's worse, takes a romantic interest in his all-business "wife." Kate seems not to believe she deserves domestic bliss of a kind that hasn't been bought and sold, and Steve forces her to do some inconvenient soul-searching. Cracks have obviously been forming for some time in this family "unit": The replaced father aside, Jenn habitually hits on older men and Mick stress-drinks to cope with living a lie.
Despite a snappy start, "The Joneses" doesn't seem to know what to build on its strong satiric foundation, making the narrative results either obvious or difficult to swallow.
In the former category, put the trajectory of the Joneses' immediate neighbors Larry and Summer (Gary Cole and Glenne Headly), whose need to be held in esteem plays right into the game plan of their corporate counterparts. Gotta have those top-of-the-line golf clubs, gourmet frozen dinners, and the latest, greatest hot rod, but the cost may be too much to bear. Making matters worse, aspiring saleswoman Summer can't hold a candle to Kate, her new sales-on-the-downlow friend.
The parasitic reach of the Joneses illuminates the limits of capitalism (one can't squeeze blood from a stone), and the strong acting ensemble carries the script material to its own limits, but Borte allows his satire to go slack. The storytelling approach needed more of Kate's ruthless drive and less of Steve's humanism, which brings the plot to a conclusion that lands softly and feels like a compromise.
The premise begs for wicked bite, but winds up poking along amiably. That's the problem with these Joneses: It's all too easy to keep up with them.