Wednesday, October 13, 2010
The Jone$es (2009) is the best suburban horror film since Dawn of the Dead -- either version, it doesn't matter -- it's just the central metaphor comparing consumerism to living after death and eating brains.
The characters in this film are living a non-life; so thoroughly that I found it difficult to contemplate living that life for even a few moments. It's one thing to be an actor and within a pre-determined environment under a special set of circumstances, tell a story by assuming a character other than one's own, for a period of between three seconds and three hours. But to have every waking moment engaged in a fiction--that is the definition of loneliness.
I am interested in cons and con men and have read a great deal of the fairly minimal literature on the subject and what strikes one--after you get past the imagined fun of seeing the dishonest get their comeuppance due to their own greed--is how lonely the life is. Con artists don't have friends--can't have friends, and can't really have a family, at least not the way normal human beings have. That is the fascination of both The Grifters and Matchstick Men (probably the two best con movies after The Sting), in which concepts of family get distorted and tortured into strange shapes due to this strangest of occupations.
So The Joneses are not real people engaged in any real activities--I am not posting any spoilers to say that these people are living product placements. They exist merely to interest the neighbors in the various things that they are consuming. The details of this conceit are completely nonsensical--there would be no way to measure cause and effect here, we are dealing in a satiric fantasy, and as an old boat builder said, pointing at a seam in the fiberglass said, "that's where they put it together and that's where it will fall apart."
OK, pretend you're a screenwriter now, and imagine you have two actors-slash-con artists pretending to be a sexy, happily married couple. What do you suppose will happen? Of course. you don't have to see the movie to know that there will be romantic and sexual confusion here. So that's one thread. Then-- your characters are advocating relentless consumerism, and to make the engine of your story go well, you have to put the perfect victims in the house next door (well played by Glenne Headley and Gary Cole, pictured above, both actors who can vacillate between likability and desperation). Weak, insecure people desperate for approval and respect, without a firm value system of their own. Great-- Moliere himself could go to town with a set-up like this.
Now--these poor marks have spent far beyond their means putting them in danger of losing their abode and being thrown out of Paradise itself. (This probably was funnier when it was written in 2005 or 2006 and we were more worried about excessive credit card debt, not a housing and banking meltdown that brought the entire economy to its knees. Additional support for my hypothesis that this had a long development curve is that 12 people have some sort of producer credit, suggesting a project which passed through many hands before receiving a green light.) What will you do with the comic situation of foolish people at the brink of ruin through their own foolishness, but egged on by your protagonists.
The Joneses chooses this moment to abandon the satiric never-never land it has lived in and jump into a facsimile of the real world, introducing real tragedy and real remorse. I'm not saying this shouldn't be done or that it is impossible. I'm guessing that a Billy Wilder, a Stanley Kubrick, a Paddy Chayefsky, a Robert Altman (especially), perhaps even an Aaron Sorkin could do it (to name the most prominent film satirists that come to mind rapidly). But writer-director David Borte does not have those skills, notwithstanding those of the under-appreciated David Duchovny, one of the most slyly funny actors on the planet.
Worst of all, the shift in tone overemphasizes the fragility of the initial premise, and leads us to think of all the reasons that this could never happen and the scheme could never work, chief among them the fact that human beings are involved.
The other principal missed opportunity, it seems to me, is in the cinematography. Not to direct over Mr. Borte's shoulder, but shouldn't the look of the film ape its central premise? Shouldn't the film look like a super over-produced shiny commercial when the Joneses are touting all their wonderful toys to their "friends" and "neighbors," a look which could be contrasted with the look of the backstage scenes? The film was a low-budget affair, probably shot quickly to accommodate the cast's busy schedules, but with some planning, the production, especially light and sound, could have been engaged to enhance the concept.
Swing and a miss, but a miss not without merit.