Don’t bother keeping up


Since The X Files, David Duchovny’s air of undentable diffidence has been his strength (to those who find him dreamy) as well as his limitation (to the others). In the social satire The Joneses, Duchovny plays a salesman who, at a key point, when he truly deserves it, is about to be slapped by a neighbor played by Glenne Headly.

It’s a serious moment in a film strategically stingy on serious moments, and the look of anger and confusion on Headly’s face, just before she lets loose, is potent indeed. For a few seconds, an oddly toothless comedy is made to matter. Immediately after the slap, however, Duchovny, whose character suddenly realizes the damage he has caused, doesn’t seem to know how to play it. Forced to adapt his ironic glide for more dramatic circumstances, he merely looks putout, confused, vague.

First-time feature filmmaker Derrick Borte wrote and directed The Joneses, as well as served as a producer. Having honed his craft doing commercials and industrials, Borte here takes aim at American consumerism and gullibility. The Joneses are a pretend family — pretend husband and wife, with two fake teenage children — who work as a four-person sales force, setting up shop in a new neighborhood. Once settled, they go to work, which means enticing their new neighbors and country-club friends into wanting what they have and then buying it themselves. Golf clubs, imported beer, flash-frozen sushi: Their job is product placement, and they themselves, attractive and shiny, are the products.

Borte seems to have gotten sidetracked by the notion of audience empathy, which kills satire quicker than anything. In The Joneses, the characters played by Duchovny (the newbie) and Demi Moore (the shark-like veteran) dance a little dance of seduction with each other, while they stealth-market themselves and all their fabulous possessions to the boorish locals. (Gary Cole plays one of Duchovny’s golfing buddies, married to the cosmetics-mad woman portrayed by Headly.) The cons should leave the audience a little breathless; instead, Borte goes for an indistinct tone and suburban-malaise vibe that was dated (as well as patronizing) when American Beauty came out.

Duchovny and Moore have their moments; they’re like two preening sharks working on commission. But without strong material, their shared self-regard threatens, at times, to turn the movie into a two-person narcissists’ convention.

—MCT, Tribune Newspapers Respond:

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