Keeping up with the Joneses has never been easy. But what happens when the Joneses in question are undercover marketers determined to sell you on ... everything.
An old cliché insists that you can't have it all. The Joneses, however, would beg to differ.
Rolling into their new, über-upscale gated community in a gleaming Audi SUV, the Joneses are determined to make their mark. "We are gonna do some damage in this town," Steve promises his wife, Kate, and their two high schoolers, Jenn and Mick.
Their strategy? Living life so well that everyone around them can't help but take notice. And life is indeed good for the Joneses. They want for nothing, and they glide through their days with a stylish, effortless panache that leaves everyone in their wake aching to live the dream that seems to be reality for them.
Like all "perfect" families, however, the Joneses have a secret. And theirs is a whopper: They're not a family at all. Instead, they're four employees of a "stealth marketing" firm that provides them with all manner of products to integrate into their well-heeled lifestyle. The Joneses' job? Parading the "good life" so conspicuously that it compels friends and neighbors to keep up.
Which means, of course, coughing up cash to acquire all the stuff the Joneses "casually" dangle in front of everybody—from cars to golf clubs, skateboards to perfume, gourmet food to facial treatments, jogging suits to smart phones.
But as another old saw warns, you can't buy happiness. And that's a reality everyone in this film eventually has to reckon with.
[Note: The following sections contain spoilers.]
The Joneses is a lot of things: a drama, a comedy, a skewering satirical take on our culture's addiction to consumerism. But more than those things, The Joneses is a postmodern fable that addresses the question of how we can find happiness in a world in which there's always something new to want. Like all good fables, this one dispenses a down-to-earth moral: You can't have it all. And even if you did, you still wouldn't be satisfied.
That's a truism ad agencies work hard to circumvent. Marketers of all stripes promise that if we just had x, y or z, we'd be happy. Content. The Jones family is the physical embodiment of that promise—living, breathing product placement so integrated into the life of a supposedly real family that their neighbors don't even realize they're being targeted. Or, as the film's tagline says, "They're not just living the American Dream, they're selling it."
And there are lots of life lessons to learn as we see that dream turn into a nightmare for almost everyone. Things begin to unravel first for the Joneses' neighbors, Larry and Summer. The late-fortysomething couple has a house almost as nice as the Joneses, but not quite. And so Larry and Summer spend much of their time trying to match their neighbor's lifestyle. Not only does this pursuit end in foreclosure, it utterly stifles Larry and Summer's relationship with each other. When Larry does try to connect meaningfully with his wife, she's too preoccupied with the pursuit of material things to pay him much heed.
Another nod I can give to this tale is connected to Steve growing increasingly disenchanted with his fake identity and his deceptive way of life. "I'm a single, 45-year-old failed golf pro car salesman pretending to be someone I'm not," he tells Kate. And as their relationship deepens, Steve suggests, "I want you to come join me in the real world." The movie's conclusion turns on whether Kate will have the courage to leave her posh—but fantastically false—way of life behind in exchange for something less opulent but more genuine.
And even though the Joneses aren't a real family, something like a family connection forms between them. Jenn and Mick struggle with the burden of living under false pretenses. Steve and Kate end up playing parental roles as they try to guide their "children" through emotional rough spots.
The sometimes fatal futility of trying to keep up with the Joneses is poignantly underscored when one character commits suicide because of debt and his inability to live up to "expectations." That prompts Steve to confess his real identity and job to neighbors who've gathered.
Our first clue that something is different about the Joneses comes when Kate and Steve head to separate bedrooms, even though he wants to share a bed with her. That's clearly communicated when Steve stares at Kate's bare legs (she's wearing a bathrobe) after she's showered. Kate repeatedly tries to convince Steve that their relationship is purely business. Steve, however, pursues his "wife." Their pretend kisses get more passionate, and Steve grabs her backside in front of guests during one lengthy smooch. Eventually, they consummate their relationship (offscreen), and we see them in bed together afterwards. (Their bare shoulders are visible.)
Before we learn that the Joneses aren't a real family, Jenn tries to seduce Steve. So it appears as though it's his daughter who removes her clothes in his dark room and begins to get in bed with him. Kate breaks up the proceedings by turning on the lights. Several camera shots then show Jenn's bare breasts as she argues with her "mom" about her behavior. "If you're not going to do him, why can't I?" Jenn yells. It's clear that this isn't the first time she's tried to sleep with Steve, and it's implied that other such trysts might have been more successful.
Kate says of Jenn's promiscuity, "She's got a problem," an observation that's validated when Jenn later has an affair with an older, married man. (We see her in bed waiting for him and hear sexual sounds coming from his boat.) The man's wife eventually confronts Jenn and informs her that her husband has had many such affairs, and that this one is now over.
For his part, Mick tries to kiss a boy at his high school. Later, Mick confesses to his "family" that he's gay. And taking a nasty verbal shot at Jenn, he says, "I'm gay. But at least I'm not a slut." When the Joneses move to a new neighborhood, Mick assumes the role of a college student who's openly gay.
Many female characters wear cleavage-revealing outfits. A scene in a high school locker room shows girls in bras and panties. After Kate talks suggestively about her toilet's bidet-like features, a female guest creeps off to the bathroom to see if Kate has told the truth. Steve turns Kate's discussion of how their unit is doing, sales-wise, into a dirty double entendre.
Larry repeatedly tries to initiate sex with his wife, but she always declines. Steve tells Larry that he can't go golfing because of a muscle he pulled during "tantric sex."
A woman leaves a party drunk, drives erratically and ends up having an accident. (We later see her with some bumps, bruises and a broken arm.) Mick and his friend go for a reckless ride through town. Mick's spontaneous attempt to kiss his friend is met with a fist, as the guy pummels Mick's face four or five times while yelling homosexual slurs at him.
Unable to keep up with the Joneses, Larry uses a garden hose to tie himself to his lawn mower before driving it into his swimming pool. We don't see him plunge into the pool, but we do see him tethered lifelessly to the machine, wearing only his underwear. Steve pulls his body from the water.
Crude or Profane Language
About 10 f-words and half-a-dozen s-words. God's name is taken in vain six or eight times (including one pairing with "d‑‑n"), and Jesus' name is misused once. We also hear "h‑‑‑," "a‑‑" and "b‑‑tard." Sexually themed putdowns include "faggot." We see one obscene hand gesture.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Guests at parties consume several different brands of alcohol. A certain vodka is mentioned by name, as is an upscale beer. The Joneses are chosen to receive a shipment of a new rum punch that's packaged just like children's juice boxes. Mick makes it available at a high school party in which many underage people get drunk. Elsewhere at that party, kids drink from a beer bong.
Mick and a high school girl toke marijuana together. Steve and some of his golf buddies smoke Cuban cigars. Jenn makes a passing comment about diet pills.
Other Negative Elements
Kate is determined to reach "Icon Status" in the company, a position denoted by massive sales. That goal causes her to rationalize the inherently deceptive nature of her career. She tells Steve that they're making a connection "between products and the people who want them." Steve and Kate lie to a police officer who's investigating where the rum punch came from at the high school party.
I can remember a time when football stadiums had such names as Mile High instead of Invesco. I can remember a time when I got more e-mail from friends and acquaintances than I did from spammers. I can remember a time before public schools felt the need to sell ads on their buses. In short, I remember a time before marketers made a point of seizing every delivery vehicle possible to somehow catch my attention.
That world has passed away. In its place, we now have a new world in which companies of all stripes seek ever-more sophisticated and invasive ways to get consumers' attention, to stand out from the crowd. So The Joneses imagines an outlandish—but eerily plausible—scenario in which product placement moves off of billboards, out of TV shows and junk mail, and into the house next door. While it intentionally and ironically allows itself to be a platform for product placements, it realistically depicts the outcomes of coming down with so-called affluenza: disappointment, discontentedness, disconnection and—in extreme cases—death. When it comes to finding lasting satisfaction in having the newest, shiniest stuff, then, The Joneses illustrates the futility of keeping up.
It's a provocative film, in the best sense of that word.
But it's also provocative in the worst sense, because first-time director Derrick Borte's stocks his story with sexual shenanigans, "incest," a topless young woman, teenagers getting drunk and smoking pot, and more than a few harsh profanities. So as morality tales go, this one's potential effectiveness is undermined by the immorality it showcases along the way.
One more old saying seems appropriate here since The Joneses goes a long way toward proving it: "Too much is never enough." Too bad the director followed that logic too far.