The Joneses (2009, directed by Derrick Borte) is a movie that has an implausible plot line so that I was often asking myself if the genre was not “science-fiction” instead of comedy/drama; towards the end, the movie even takes some “noir” connotations for the way a death happens and how the characters respond to it. In my view, this hybrid nature prevents the movie from really taking off and gaining momentum: we don’t emotionally attach to the characters and we feel that everything is somewhat fabricated and artificial, even thought the movie is meant to be set in reality.
Having said this, it is a movie that makes us reflect on a number of fascinating aspects of contemporary opulent societies and for this you gotta love it.
Fashion. What is fashion and why is it so important? The Joneses builds on the insights of the movie The Devil Wears Prada by showing that fashion is often nothing more than a way to boost our ego, to make us feel valued and appreciated. But the movie does more than that: it shows that fashion and its twin brother consumerism can quickly become a tragic way to fill an otherwise empty and meaningless existence.
The Joneses, new family on the bloc, immediately become popular because they are fashionable in everything they do, wear, eat, drive etc. They are able to create a picture-perfect, commercial type image of themselves that strikes the imagination of the whole neighbourhood/school/community. So strong is their charisma and appeal that very quickly people start buying the products they own, doing the things they do and acting the way they do. In short, they become the benchmark of perfection and people strive to reach that perfection by childishly imitating them.
Isn’t this what commercials are all about? Think about all those gorgeous people, blissful faces, cheerful music. The underlying message is always the same: “buy this product and you will be a happier, more successful individual”. So it’s not surprising that very early on in the movie we find out that the “family” is in reality a living version of a commercial: the members are not related and their job is to create a ripple effect in the neighbourhood geared at selling a whole range of products. So the movie can be seen as a 96 minute-long commercial that, contrarily to what commercials do, critically reflects on itself.
It is this reflection, which emerges in the last third of the movie, that makes The Jones quite a compelling film. We find out that behind that glossy surface the “Joneses” have emotionally barren lives, and that all the happiness they seem to exude is only a powerful mask – the mask of professional actors – that hides the tragedy behind it.
What kind of tragedy? The lack of real, meaningful relationships and of an authentic personality and values to live life by. As we progressively realize how vulnerable each member of the Joneses really is, we also witness the nefarious effects of their subliminal “preachings” on the neighbourhood and especially on their neighbours, that end up completely broke because they pursued the myth of consumerism as a way to “fire up” their otherwise stale existence.
So the movie is really a parody of the society we live in; it is about how we are sometimes (or often) lured by the messages that advertisers so compellingly send us. It forces us to ask ourselves the questions: what am I seeking by buying this latest product? Am I trying to be a “better”, “cooler”, “more sophisticated” individual by owning this? What type of inner-weaknesses can we uncover by paying just a little more attention to the “Jones effect” when it manifests itself in us?
I’m sure we will never meet the “stealth-marketing” Jones family in our lives, but we encounter it everyday in adds, in the fashionable people we meet and in the lustful individual in us that is constantly seeking something that will make it “feel better”.
In that respect, reading the Paradox of Choice, which I reviewed recently, can be enlightening: it offers an alternative to the Jones-like “maximizing” philosophy by introducing the concept of “satisficing”, i.e. learning how to be satisfied with “what is good enough” and how to direct our time and money towards truly worthwhile values and goals.