Arriving in New York from South Carolina with a few nights to kill, the titular lead character of "Jones," a new film opening today at the Pioneer for a week-long engagement, doesn't seem sure if he wants to get into trouble or stay out of it. In the opening moments of the film, the young and recently married expectant father, played by Trey Albright, reassures his wife back home from his tiny hotel room that Gotham is "all commercialized," before pointing out that there are "a couple bars down the street that look fun..."
Forgoing a Haruki Murakami reading, Jones takes a long stroll through Times Square, and what begins as an impersonal tour of Manhattan's soulless new façade ends with Jones searching for himself in his reflection and in the faces of the people passing him by. The sidewalks of New York have woven their pernicious magic. Before long, Jones begins to come loose from the ethical anchor of his life back home, and curb-level Manhattan reverts to the citywide moral sinkhole it was before decades of Disneyfication filled the cracks.
Eventually, Jones ends up on a barstool where Cappy (Bob Cabrini), the guy at the next glass over, assures him that Manhattan is still "a full-service town." Just how full- service is illustrated by the smiling faces gazing out at Jones from the specialty escort service ads in a free paper. Drunk, horny, and increasingly divorced from the consequences of his actions, Jones lets his fingers do the walking while another part of his anatomy does the thinking. The sex acts he subsequently purchases from a prostitute who arrives at his hotel room are long on graphically depicted accuracy and short on intimacy. After a long day videotaping a legal deposition, the next night Jones decides he wants more. Opting this time to go to a brothel instead of having a girl delivered, what he ultimately gets is in fact far less.
An open-ended and largely improvised non-story shot with low-fi video on a shoestring budget, "Jones" is one of the most aesthetically primitive contemporary films I can recall seeing in some time. Compositions of surveillance-camera bluntness are held interminably, jump cuts shorten scenes with jarring clumsiness, and much of the sound and music feels hastily post-recorded and tentatively mixed. Nevertheless, the film has an eerily accurate sensitivity to the anxieties and follies of young men resisting adulthood's call despite their irrevocable adult responsibilities. One-man band — writer, director, producer, and editor — Preston Miller has a keen ally in Mr. Albright, who brings the emotional truth of Jones's choices and the film's vérité emptiness and often murkily motivated improvisatory scenes into a sharply discernible focus.
One of the perils of the much-ballyhooed democratization of movies, brought on by microbudget do-it-yourself digital filmmaking, is that projects that might just as well have stayed speculative get made anyway. "Jones" has a clear moral compass if not a very sturdy dramatic one, and it is considerably more interesting than many of the utterly uncompelling vanity projects clogging hard drives all over the planet. But even at 76 minutes, "Jones" feels long. Early scenes tracking Jones walking through the city drag on so unrepentantly that the film almost veers into abstract territory.
What's enjoyable and surprising about "Jones" is how little judgment Messrs. Miller and Albright pass on their lead character. Needy, alienated, wide-eyed, and a bit slow on the uptake here and there, Jones is a considerably more honest and three-dimensional approximation of the everyman of his generation than one usually sees in American movies. Even though Mr. Miller's loose sketchbook of dramatic ideas might have been a better attention-span fit as a short film or as a theater piece, "Jones" the movie is a promising, if puzzling feature debut.