Friday, April 16, 2010

Putting "The Joneses" In Context

This past week I attended a screening of The Joneses at the AFI theater in Silver Spring, MD. I was curious about the casting of Demi Mooe and David Duchovny as “fake parents.” And I was even more interested in finding out of a “Hollywood” film was really going to bash materialism, or at least give it a good back hand. Director and co-screenplay writer Derrick Borte, kindly stuck around to answer questions after the film.

Borte, who used to work in TV news, said he knew the story would focus on the ripple effect celebrities can have when they sell things just by wearing them, driving them or eating them. He just had to frame the context of the story. So he took a non-celebrity family “unit” and placed them in a McMansion type neighborhood that could have been anywhere in American circa 2006.

Ironically, the script was written about eight years ago and Borte was worried that it had passed its time, and then worried it was too timely – if the movie had been released in the middle of the housing boom, would it have been more like foreshadowing instead of a parody? (…Borte insists he leaves you to draw your own conclusion of whether or not he is making a statement, or which statement he is making).

In 2002, USA Today reported that foreclosures were at a 30 year high. “As homeowner associations are the fastest growing segment of the market, this average is expected to zoom even higher,” it states. Oh, and it did. Monthly foreclosures reached 1.5 million around 2007 according to Realtytrac, then went up to 3.1 million in 2008 and estimated around 3 million again in 2009. Economists peg the 2010 number to be around 2.4 million. The crises left many people asking how and why, “everything seemed to be fine.”

In the vein of “things are not always what they seem to be,” this nuclear family starring Demi Moore as the pretend mom, David Duchovny as the pretend dad, Amber Heard as the pretend high school age daughter, and Ben Hollingsworth as the pretend son. (I had forgotten how well Duchovny could deliver a dry line that made me laugh out loud. In this sense, Moore was out-matched by him in a Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting kind of way.) These four beautiful people move into a manicured neighborhood posing as a “real” family. They are in fact, not. Each of them is actually a sales person who gets paid/promoted based on how many people they can influence into buying the lipstick they’re wearing, the car they’re driving etc., simply by looking good in it.

Kudos to the scriptwriters for creating a successful plot structure and writing dialogue that let’s the actors do their job. The pivotal scenes are underwritten so well that it actually feels like they’re coming from the characters and not from actors who have memorized lines (see Date Night). The drama unfolds in a believable but not all too predictable way and the conclusion is satisfactory yet still leaves some unknowns.

Shocking, considering that the entire film was shot in 31 days somewhere near Atlanta, GA. Some of the reviews call the film clever but thin, or having a few holes. Considering how quickly this was done, I’m sure it could have been a lot worse. The fact that they got Gary Cole to play Larry, the envious neighbor in a miserable marriage to Summer, played by Glenne Headly was also a stroke of good fortune.

During the post-showing Q&A I was struck by the types of questions Borte was faced with. Some of them made me feel down-right embarrassed to live in Silver Spring, but that’s a matter for another column. He was asked about the Tiger Woods joke that didn’t end up on the cutting room floor (which was good because it was very funny). No, he said, he did not regret leaving that joke in the film. The most surprising reveal of the night was the fact that the producers did NOT receive product placement funding from any of the brands in the film. The explanation was that they didn’t think the companies would want to sponsor a film that could be seen as critical of the lifestyle affiliated with these luxury products.

The Joneses is more about lessons in overspending and, if you have a soul, you will eventually pay a price for pretending to be someone you’re not. It’s a comedy with dark notes that are well-placed. I’m glad the film released when it did. Perhaps it will make a few more people conscious of the material envy that controls the decisions they make. Not that it will stop banks from lending mansions to people who can’t afford it, but it’s a start.