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Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

The Joneses

Director: Derrick Borte
Producers: Doug Mankoff, Andrew Spaulding, Derrick Borte, Kristi Zea
Screenplay: Derrick Borte
Cast: David Duchovny, Demi Moore, Amber Heard, Ben Hollingsworth, Gary Cole, Glenne Headly, Lauren Hutton, Christine Evangelista, Chris Williams
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2009


The Joneses, a seemingly picture-perfect family, move into a pristine residence in a posh suburban Atlanta neighborhood that is filled with "McMansions" and all the trappings of the upper middle class. When they set out to befriend their neighbors, they are instantly made to feel welcome, because they are good-looking, friendly, and affluent. Within a short period of time, they become the toast of the whole town.

This family always seems ahead of the curve when it comes to what they drive, wear, play and consume. Kate, the mom, is the ultimate trendsetter - beautiful, sexy, dressed head-to-toe in designer labels. She wears the most fragrant perfumes, and shows off glamorous jewelry. Her husband, Steve, is the admired successful businessman who has it all: a gorgeous wife, big house and an endless supply of high-tech toys. He walks the country club golf course sporting the latest clubs, making most members jealous. Their attractive teen-aged children, Jenn and Mick, are advanced for their age. With their charming personalities, they are instantly popular and rule their new school and neighborhood parties.

Although the family embodies all that is hip and trendy, they never boast because they don't have to. People want to be liked by them.

But almost from the beginning of this movie, viewers get the impression that something is not quite right. The Joneses don't seem to relate to one another as family members. The house they are moving into seems completely unfamiliar to all of them. Husband and wife sleep in separate bedrooms. One night their daughter gets undressed and tries to climb into bed with dad, but mom chases her out of his bedroom.

At this point we learn about the punch line of this story. The Joneses are not a family at all, but a marketing unit that works as professional "early adopters": People who influence a peer group by being the first to know about, use, wear or attend something. This "cell" is commissioned by a marketing company to introduce and stimulate sales of newly released luxury-level merchandise to their social circle, using undercover marketing techniques. (The end credits of the movie indicate that these exact techniques are used in the real world.) The Joneses show off Lacoste or Yves Saint Laurent fashions, Audi sports cars, Ethan Allen furnishings and every manner of flat-screen TV or earring known to American consumers. No dinner party in their mansion would be perfect without a plug for this beer, those heat-and-serve burritos, or flash-frozen bites of sushi.

Their job is to make everybody around them believe that happiness lies in keeping up with the Joneses. Their productivity is measured by their success in inducing others to keep up with them. The more tracksuits, cell phones and high-end prepared dinners are sold, the happier the Joneses' boss seems to be. And the "family" follows their supervisor's advice: "If people want you, they'll want what you've got." Soon, through the "ripple effect" of stealth-viral marketing, everybody in town is racing to keep up with this family to mitigate their suburban emptiness.

Kate is a corporate team player with no conscience. She loves to be paid to impersonate a family and consume her sponsors' best products ahead of the market, while never having to pay for them. Enjoying her comfortable existence, Kate embodies a sleek and seamless ideal of material comfort and aesthetic perfection with an aggression that is no less ruthless for being invisible.

Pretending to be a harmonious unit creates some dysfunctions. The Joneses fake pursuit of happiness runs into complications, when real emotions enter into the scene of smooth performance. When Jenn wants to sleep with her "father", it becomes obvious that he falls for his fake wife, who is essentially his boss. But Kate is initially far more interested in hitting her monthly quota. As the boss, she stays on task and is focused on getting the family's sales numbers up. After Steve keeps pursuing her romantically, she seems to fall in love with him but doesn't want to admit this to herself. Mick, who is gay, struggles with pretending to like girls in order to close a sale.

Steve is initially enthusiastic, but the former salesman is new to this business. Because he still has a conscience, he is bothered by the way the locals lap up their subtle showcasing of products. Jenn and Mick, working the high-school crowd, have even trickier ethics to ignore.

We get a clear look at the dark side of materialism when things turn sour. The family's gullible and envious next-door neighbors, Larry and Summer, spend money far beyond their means to try to play catch-up. Their effort is a doomed enterprise. By definition they can never take the lead, because the Joneses define the race. Steve makes an unsuccessful attempt to warn the couple by trying to let them know about the family's secret. Larry slithers from ridiculousness to tragedy and ends up committing suicide because he cannot keep up with the Joneses any more after falling into immense debt.

At this point, Steve cannot hold back any more and tells everybody in the neighborhood the truth. When the news spreads, the whole family flees town. Steve struggles with regret and longing for Kate after he gets fired. Kate, Jenn, and Mick start over in new "cells".

Many film critics call the ending of this movie cheesy, but it demonstrates the protagonists' inner transformation. Steve looks for and eventually finds Kate. He helps her understand what a more honest life and sharing their love with each other have to offer. After some hesitation, she works through her inner conflict. She leaves her "cell" to start a new life with Steve in which they can live authentically. 

Cinema Alchemy

Laura was a 42-year-old single client who struggled with feelings of anxiety, shame, and depression. She told me that she experienced these feelings since she had to borrow money because she was not able to pay her bills any more. When my client started having problems paying the rent for her luxurious apartment, she saw no choice but to approach her mother for help. Before her mom gave her the money, she asked Laura to create a budget, look for a cheaper place to live, and start therapy.

My client was a mid-level manager in a retail store in San Francisco. Tempted by the consumer goods in her own and the surrounding stores, she had spent money above her means for many years. Looking back, Laura recognized that she had frequently tried to avoid bad feelings with what she called "retail therapy". With the downturn of the economy, her salary and her yearly bonuses were cut, but her expenses continued.

Several credit cards were now maxed out.

Because dealing with credit card bills made her very anxious, Laura avoided it. Therefore she felt very bad about herself. For a while, we worked with her self-attacking "Inner Critic". Learning to recognize and mitigate these "attacks" helped Laura to overcome her initial paralysis, and start making first steps to resolving her financial dilemma. She became more willing to actively search for constructive solution, and discussed a budget with her mom. Looking at the reality of her financial situation, Laura felt as if she woke up from a deep sleep.

Subsequently, we explored the history of her relationship to money. When she had received her first credit card at age eighteen, she had interpreted her credit limit as money in her pocket. Over the years, my client learned that this perspective was an illusion, but the buying habits that she had developed were very hard to give up. When I asked her to imagine how she would feel if she had to spend less for consumer goods, Laura told me that she would feel sad and empty. She became conscious of an inner void that she tried to fill through shopping.

At this point, I encouraged my client to watch "The Joneses". I asked her to pay attention to Steve and Kate's inner transformation toward the end. When she came back for her next session, Laura told me that the characters in the movie focus on consuming goods because they try to fill an inner void. She thought that Steve and Kate demonstrated an inner change at the end by starting a more authentic life with true emotions for each other.

I asked my client whether she could imagine a similar future for herself. Because she hesitated, I asked Laura whether she remembered a time in her life when she felt authentic or engaged in a truly fulfilling activity. She remembered engaging in artwork and deep conversations with friends. After this exploration, she started to integrate these and similar activities more into her life. She also joined Debtors Anonymous . Pretty soon she was able to let go of her previous spending habits. Her anxiety, shame, and depression dissipated.

Theoretical Contemplations

My Cinema Alchemy work with Laura drew from a form of hypnotherapy, where Teaching Tales are used in open-eye-trance: stories are told without formal induction. Listening to a story in a focused way creates a form of trance state. The tales contain indirect suggestions , in which subliminal commands are conveyed. They are often used to circumvent resistance to suggestions through unconscious learning. Clients enter this state, while listening, in which they are less involved with thoughts and issues. They accept suggestions with a reduced critical sense.

Being "drawn into" a movie while watching can be considered a trance state too. During this process, the viewer identifies with the characters. This process is useful for clients who go through life transitions. Experiencing a film character throughout a cycle of transition can help clients understand how the character resolves his or her dilemma first before they apply it to their own situation.

Guiding Questions for Work with Clients

•  Which character in the movie you can you most relate to?

•  How did the characters' behaviors make you feel?

•  What did you learn from the story of the Joneses and the people around them?

•  Do you feel an inner void if you don't consume something like many of the characters appear to?

•  Can you remember periods of your life during which you felt more authentic and fulfilled?

•  What would it take to get back in touch with these qualities?


Birgit Wolz wrote and co- wrote the following continuing education online courses:

Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.

Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.

Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.

Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)

Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.

DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy