“The Joneses” is at its most intriguing when you’re in the dark about what’s going on: For the first 20 minutes, we have no clue about the intentions of the peculiarly friendly new family that just moved into a deluxe suburban development in Anywhere, U.S.A.
The attitude of these new neighbors is so cheerful yet mysteriously “off,” we might wonder whether we are about to see a horror movie. Which, in a sense, we are.
We note that the Joneses have the slickest, latest, most expensive things. Their clothes, their cars, their toys — everything is strangely top-shelf.
And there’s a good reason for that. As we quickly learn, the Joneses are no ordinary family, nor a family at all.
They are employed in “stealth marketing,” an increasingly popular and definitively creepy kind of advertising. The “married” couple and their two teenage “kids” are being paid to push new, high-end products — but to do it without letting their new friends and neighbors know they’re being manipulated.
This is a potentially rich topic for social satire, which is why it’s disappointing that “The Joneses” director Derrick Borte begins to steer in the direction of a softer kind of drama that will teach the characters about, you know, the emptiness of advertising as a way of life.
For Kate, the matriarch played with customary authority by Demi Moore, this is a job, and her goal is driving up numbers. She hired relative newcomer Steve (David Duchovny) to play her husband, but Steve seems a little too prone to distraction — including an inappropriate interest in his new pretend-wife.
Their hired children (Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth) have their own dramas to play out, both of which are kind of tired, although rising star Heard (from “Pineapple Express” and “Zombieland”) has a wicked sense of delivery.
The most potentially fruitful subplot involves a next-door couple played by Gary Cole and Glenne Headly, who must keep up with the Joneses even if it means financial ruin.
But even this scenario is weighed down by the movie’s turn from sharp, Stanley Kubrick-like satire toward “American Beauty” territory. The scalpel is replaced by the soft soap.
It’s too bad, because the idea is a good one (and David Duchovny creates an intriguing character, reminding you that this actor is too little seen on the big screen). Everything’s for sale, even neighborliness — a depressing premise that demands the blackest comedy.