Satire and Hollywood are uneasy bedfellows: Hollywood is always worried that if it takes aim at a sacred cow it might kill the golden goose, and anyway what is this livestock doing in its bed in the first place? The difficulties are encapsulated in The Joneses, a satire on the family and commercialism that can't help trying to sell us the stuff it hates.
At the start of the film, the Joneses – dad Steve, mom Kate, teenagers Jenn and Mick – are moving into their palatial new house in a plush suburb. At first glance, they are the perfect family – wealthy, happy, attractive – and you can just tell Steve and Kate have managed to keep the spark smouldering. But one or two things are odd: why does Steve tell the kids they're going to "do some damage" in this town? Why does Kate banish him to the spare room every night? (And why does Jenn try to join him there?)
The answer soon becomes clear: they aren't a family at all; they are highly paid salespeople employed by a stealth marketing company; their job is to be the coolest, sexiest family in town, so that everybody wants the stuff they've got. Sure enough, within days of their arrival all the girls at high school are wearing the same lipstick and trainers as Jenn; the guys are buying Mick's video games; the moms want skin products and clothes so they can look as good as Kate, and the dads all wonder if a set of clubs like Steve's could really help their swing.
But cracks begin to appear: Jenn has a wandering eye, Mick starts to worry about being a phoney (and has other secrets, anyway), Kate, the team-leader, worries that Steve isn't selling enough, and Steve can't take the whole thing seriously. Meanwhile, keeping up with the Joneses takes its toll on the neighbours: having a perfect family in town makes life hard for everyone.
Borte, directing his first film, does a smooth, confident job, so that even though the set-up isn't quite plausible – hard to see that the economics and the organisation of this set-up could ever make sense – you're happy to go along with it. Not many holes in the casting, either: Duchovny, in particular, seems to be having a good time, a little bit aloof but still warm, still charming – you can always see him calculating the effect that he has on people, but with enough humour to make that acceptable; and some of the charm rubs off on Moore, whose customary hard edge is softened. Nice to see Lauren Hutton as the icy boss and the perpetually underrated Gary Cole as the insecure next-door neighbour.
But the film lacks the nerve to career headlong into disaster, veering off into mush at the last minute; and it seems unsettlingly ambivalent about the lure of consumption. Steve may despise his job, but he's genuinely excited about that Audi sportster he takes delivery of. It's hard to take a critique of greed from a script so set on having its cake and eating it.