Affable Snapshot of Suburban Blues
Nothing is sacred in suburbia. At least that’s the consensus of pop culture beginning around, say, the mid-1960s. The latest attempt to mine the humor in this particular brand of modern disillusionment is a pale indie entitled The Oranges.
Lest anyone think it’s set in a sunny clime like Florida or California, or that the protagonists are a clan with a citrusy surname, the title derives from a cluster of New Jersey towns. But this is largely an irrelevant detail since The Oranges could take place in any American suburb.
The Ostroffs and Wallings are neighbors and best friends in leafy West Orange. The Wallings’ marriage has stalled for unspecified reasons, most likely mid-life doldrums. No matter the cause, advertising exec David (Hugh Laurie) and his wife Paige (Catherine Keener) aren’t happy. Their 24-year-old daughter Vanessa (Alia Shawkat), who narrates the movie, can’t get her act together. She lives at home and works in a furniture chain store, afraid to pursue her dream ofbecoming a designer.
Across the street, Terry (Oliver Platt) and Carol Ostroff (Allison Janney) aren’t in great shape either, but their dysfunction is played strictly for laughs. He’s a gadget-obsessed milquetoast and she’s a nag. Their daughter Nina (Leighton Meister) is shacked up with a flaky guy in San Francisco and hasn’t been home in five years.
The bond between Vanessa and Nina was severed long ago in high school over a boy; plus Nina dropped Vanessa for a cooler crowd. What transpires when Nina unexpectedly shows up for Thanksgiving hardly repairs their friendship. Nina and 50-year-old David become lovers. Their romance seems ironic and inappropriate on many levels, not least is the fact Carol has been pushing Nina on the Walling’s other kid, the handsome and ambitious Toby (Adam Brody).
One of Vanessa’s work colleagues describes her father’s scandalous May-December union as just another instance of an “old cow eating young grass.” The filmmakers are careful to ensure it’s not repellant by making Nina a consenting adult (she’s 24 like Vanessa) and by not having David appear at all lecherous. (This is Laurie at his most subdued and boyish.) There’s a certain plausibility to their relationship, and it doesn’t feel as taboo as it might. She’s fetching enough to turn any man’s head and he’s laid-back and non-threatening. Still, the premise boils down to a middle-aged male’s fantasy, a conclusion confirmed by the misogynistic subtext discernible in the early going.
Of course the primary victim of the affair is Paige, a woman so obsessed with Christmas that the caroling group she leads begins rehearsing in August. This holiday season isn’t going to be her best. Vanessa also has cause to be upset. It’s not every day your former best friend starts dating your father. For his part, Terry is bewildered by his pal’s actions -- and doesn’t appear to expect anything different from the rebellious Nina -- yet channels his feelings productively. He’s motivated to get in shape and start playing Ultimate Frisbee, which he claims to have invented along with two other college buddies, including the real-life movie producer Joel Silver.
The dialogue penned by screenwriters Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss comes across as blandly realistic. Save for R-rated language, what’s seen and heard on contemporary sitcoms (e.g., “Suburgatory”), not to mention reality shows, is more racy. Though this restraint is welcome in certain respects, the film needs to be edgier and more discomfiting to really work. There’s not enough tension for the humor to diffuse. And if the aim is to be serious, then the awkwardness between the two families has to be presented in more detail.
As it stands, there are a few good zingers but the script wobbles between wry and zany. On the plus side, it doesn’t devolve into cheap farce, despite some madcap moments. Nor does it try to psychologize or sentimentalize. At its deepest, it skewers middle-class consumerism and materialism, while touching on the idea that we have to allow each other to pursue happiness in our own ways, within limits.
This “live-and-let-live” message gels with director Julian Farino’s straightforward-bordering-on-static visual style. His experience making documentaries in his native England is evidenced by his unobtrusive camera angles and the movie’s de-saturated look. Farino is a fly-on-the-wall, however most of what he witnesses looks pretty tame and mundane. The Oranges isn’t funny enough to score as a comedy or trenchant enough to qualify as a memorable drama. And because they’re so careful not to offend, the filmmakers don’t pursue the romance angle with any conviction. (Perhaps some things in suburbia are still sacred.) What we’re left with is a bland dramedy featuring a strong cast. Affable to a fault, it isn’t worth venturing out of your own neighborhood to catch at the multiplex.
(Released by ATO Pictures; rated "R" for language including sexual references and some drug use.)