Is ‘The Joneses’ The Grimmest Movie Of The Recession?

ABC’s been selling the idea that their new terrible-things-happen-to-people-in-the-Hamptons show is going to be popular because America is ready for pop culture that soaks the rich. I think that’s entirely possible. And it also reminded me that I’ve been meaning to watch The Joneses, in which David Duchovny and Demi Moore play the heads of a fake family who move into an affluent neighborhood and stimulate spending by showing off fancy products and setting a new standard in aspirationalism.

The movie did quite badly: it only made $1,475,746 at the box office. And that actually kind of makes sense. It’s not a terrible movie, but it is a pretty uncomfortable one. What these fabulously amoral people do is juxtaposed, though not aggressively, against the backdrop of the recession. And it’s explicitly a rebuke to the product placement that Hollywood relies on, to the broader project of pop culture as a vehicle for setting unrealistic lifestyle standards.

What’s effective about the movie is how relentless it is about how faking being a family takes a toll on the characters who are pretending, and about how the lifestyle they’re selling hurts the people in their neighborhood. Duchovny’s character Steve is secretly in love with Moore’s, but she keeps him away from her, constantly reminding him that there is no genuine connection between them. The man who plays their teenaged son is secretly gay, which is of course OK in the real world, but not necessarily as marketable as heterosexuality, and he gets punched in the face when he hits on the brother of the girl he’s been pretending to date — on the same night that he gets the girl gets drunk and carelessly lures her into a drunk-driving accident. The woman playing their daughter gets involved with a married man to her own detriment.

And their next-door neighbors max out their credit cards chasing the Jones’ lifestyle, buying cars that the Jones immediately make look outdated, giving each other gifts they can’t afford because the Jones’ preach that random gift-giving is the key to marital success. “Larry, you did not make the house payment last month,” says the wife, a desperate social climber who wants nothing more than to become a successful cosmetics saleswoman. “Why are you telling me that I don’t need to worry?” They keep on going to the point of ruination and foreclosure, and when Steve tries to warn Larry, Larry insists that Steve’s just trying to undermine him, that he’s jealous. And ultimately, their neighbor commits suicide.

Having killed a man, Steve’s left alone in the empty house he doesn’t own, abandoned by the woman he thought he’d sold on the idea of loving him, relationships, of course, being one more marketable product. She comes back to him, of course. But I wonder how well the knowledge that they’re no longer doing the wrong thing makes up for the knowledge of all the terrible things they did do.