“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on
earth, where moth and rust consume and
where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store
up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where
neither moth nor rust consumes and where
thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where
your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Those who decry Hollywood filmmakers’ practice of product placement will have a field day with this satirical probe of our materialistic society. The new family just moved into the posh neighborhood, the Joneses, appear to be the ideal family. Steve (David Duchovny), handsome and athletically built, is an excellent golfer. Kate (Demi Moore) is a glamorous mom and decorator of impeccable taste, and their smart teenagers Jennifer (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) are bound to attract their peers at school. They are such a picture perfect family and so aware of what is the best in sports equipment, food, and clothing fashion that everyone wants to “keep up with the Joneses.” Larry (Gary Cole) and Summer (Glenne Headly), the next-door neighbors who first welcome them to the neighborhood, especially want what they seem to have. Their marriage has grown stale, and Larry is taken in by Steve’s pretend expensive gift that he has supposedly purchased “for no reason at all.” Larry starts buying gifts, for Summer and himself, but because he cannot really afford them, is headed toward financial trouble. I write of Steve’s “pretend gift” because, as we discover, the Joneses are not a real family, but a marketing unit. All that they seemingly own and display so ably belongs to a marketing company that employs them to entice others into purchasing the products.
Steve, a failed car salesman, is new to the game. Kate is the senior member of the unit bent on achieving the highest status possible in the firm, something that sounds very much like the pink Cadillac awarded to topnotch sellers of the Mary Kay beauty products.
At first Larry’ sales figures are so mediocre that their supervisor (Lauren Hutton) gives Kate just a week to inspire him to do better. When Steve’s boosting of his expensive golf clubs and car do result in better sales, he in turn is offered the opportunity to leave her and boss his own unit. However, by now he is troubled by two things—his growing attraction to Kate and his uneasy conscience over their deception of their new friends. Also, the teenage members of their unit are getting into trouble, both sexually and with the expensive alcoholic fruit drink that the family has been serving at their lavish parties. Why not, the kids think, share that with their friends, thus becoming even cooler in their admiring eyes?
Director Derrick Borte and co-writer Randy T. Dinzler have given us an intriguing illustration or middrash of Jesus’ warning about loving things. Indeed, one of the characters, I think it is the supervisor, says at the beginning of the film, “The question you have to ask yourself is how far are you willing to go to get what you want.” The answer from the Jonseses is “Pretty far,” and from their neighbor Larry, “Too far.” The critics have been somewhat harsh on the film, especially its last section when the story turns very dark (one even calls it “preachy” —a bit unfairly, I think). It might have been better if the filmmakers had just presented us a tale that did not show the inevitable consequences of the consumerist lifestyle, leaving it up to the audience to draw their own conclusions. However, despite whatever flaws it possesses, the film offers a wonderful opportunity for youth and adult groups to take a closer look at our culture that proclaims that those “who die with the most toys are the winners” (one character actually says this). Were you a neighbor of the Joneses, would you be taken in by their stealthy promotion of their things? And if not, what might you say to them as a witness to a different lifestyle?
1. What do you think of the Joneses when you first meet them? Did they seem too perfect to you? With which of the characters do you most identify?
2. Who is the one bothered by what they are doing? Why do you think this is so?
3. What is it that Kate wants the most? How is Steve also drawn to this? How is the offer from their supervisor to him similar to the temptation stories in Matthew and Luke (see chapter 4 in either one)? Food, power and popularity—all are found in Jesus’ three temptations: how does owning the latest gadgets and serving the finest food offer their possessor in our society all three of the temptations?
4. What did you think of Steve’s ultimate decision? Is this too “preachy” for you? Were you making this movie, would you leave the last section out, not resolving their moral dilemma, as some filmmakers such as the Coen brothers might?
5. How is Larry’s fate a demonstration of the result of the false values peddled by the Joneses?
6. Years ago a car company used in their ad campaign the slogan “Ask the man who owns one” ? How is this similar to what the marketing company is doing through the Joneses? Watch several ads on TV and see how this tactic is widely used: through actors simulating people with a problem; through celebrities who supposedly use the product; or through real customers willing to “testify.” If a group is discussing this film, the leader might record a few choice ads and play them during the session.