When I think about the dark arts, I don't imagine the hocus-pocus world of Harry Potter -- I think about marketing.
From the post-World War II days of Vance Packard's Hidden Persuaders to contemporary viral marketing, the art of convincing people they absolutely must have some product they actually don't need remains a fascinating blend of psychology, imagination and hoodoo.
So the world envisioned in The Joneses is entirely plausible - and often very funny. In Derrick Borte's dark comedy, triggering a Pavlovian response is what the game is all about.
The Joneses are Kate and Steve (Demi Moore and David Duchovny), who move into an upscale new neighborhood in a toney suburb, where they immediately ingratiate themselves to all their neighbors. Those neighbors, of course, are watching as the moving van disgorges one brilliant piece of home furnishing after another.
Very quickly, Kate, Steve and their teen-age kids, Jenn (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth), become the most popular folks in town. Steve is the toast of the country club, with all the newest golf gear, a hot car, the coolest sunglasses and an easy-going line of patter. Kate, meanwhile, is the hostess with the mostest - the most delicious hors d'oeuvres, the most stylish threads, the most generous parties.
Before long, their neighbors are clamoring for tips on how to be like the Jones family. It turns out that it IS possible to keep up with the Joneses - if you've got the cash.
Which, as it turns out, is exactly what the Joneses are there for. They are perfect for a reason: They're a marketing tool. And I won't say anything more than that, because I don't want to give away too much of the film's surprise.
Just say that, when they insinuate themselves into the community, the Jones family causes a ripple effect, in terms of the way their envious, acquisitive neighbors begin competing to have the same lifestyle as the Joneses. Even as they do, however, both their lives and those of the Jones family start to unravel in unexpected ways.
Directed by Borte from a script he co-wrote with Randy Dinzler, The Joneses is sharp-edged, though it eventually writes itself into a corner. But before it reaches its unavoidable conclusion, the film offers many pleasures, most of them darkly comic in nature. Duchovny proves, as he does on every episode of the hilariously randy "Californication," that, with the right material, he's got terrific light-comic timing. He and Moore have a nice chemistry - off-beat, slightly skewed, generally unexpected. Hollingsworth and Heard fill in the spaces nicely, as teens with secrets of their own.
The Joneses is a smart comedy with an agenda that, for the most part, knows what it's about and gets about it. It's not perfect but it's full of surprises.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hollywoodnfine