Leaden and cliché-riddled, The Oranges is, for starters, not about the four neighboring townships in New Jersey. There are no emerald green lawns in New Jersey in December (and it was filmed in New Rochelle). No, it’s about two neighboring dysfunctional families—instead of just one—who live across the street from each other. David and Paige Walling (Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener) have been best friends with Terry and Carol Ostroff (Oliver Platt and Allison Janney) for years. They exercise, barbecue, raise their kids and celebrate Christmas together, and frankly it’s as boring to them as it is to the viewer. Paige is obsessed with Christmas and spends too much time shopping for ornaments and organizing her choir of carol-singing flakes to pay much attention to David, who holes up every night in front of his TV set in his off-limits “man cave.” (Shades of Tommy Lee Jones in the brighter, far superior Hope Springs.) Their marriage has hit a speed bump, and one of the many things wrong with this movie is that nobody ever bothers to explain why.
But things are about to change in the teeth-clenching dramedy of a TV sitcom, when the Ostroffs’ daughter Nina (Leighton Meester) returns home after five years away at college (Huh? No summer vacations or Thanksgiving reunions in five years?) and a hippie romance that has just hit the rocks, and starts sleeping with Mr. Walling, who is more than twice her age. All hell breaks loose, making for easy laughs and weak double entendres, and all of the other members of the two families are forced to rethink their own lives, while the story plods along in voiceover narration by the Wallings’ dumpy, pot-smoking daughter Vanessa (Alia Shawkat).
Only a British director making his first film (Julian Farino) could pile on so many clichés tackling a subject as foreign as warped American domesticity and eccentric suburbanites trying to cope with the Christmas holidays. Instead of discussing the sexual revolution in their own bedrooms in a rational manner, the men rant, the wives suffer breakdowns, Allison Janney delivers a demented lecture on what happens when penises age and poor Catherine Keener, in a thankless role as the sour-faced Walling matriarch, leaves her two children home with their hormonally charged father while she maxes out his Visa renting an entire bed and breakfast to sulk in, and drives over the family Christmas decorations with her automobile. What does David see in his best friends’ vapid daughter in the first place? Why does Nina fall in love with a family friend her father’s age? Can’t anyone just talk to each other? Finally you come to the conclusion that you just couldn’t care less.
The cast practically throws their hips out of place running a marathon to build characters where none are provided by script writers Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss, who go for quirky sentimentality where sanity should be. The lackluster direction is pretty much what you might expect from a man who has helmed episodes of Sex and the City and The Office. The film is worth seeing for the excellent ensemble work by a cast that, although diligent and appealing, remain somewhat less than thrilling. They do their best to plumb the depths of domestic dysfunction, but in the end, The Oranges does not quite deliver the goods.
Running Time 91 minutes
Written by Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss
Directed by Julian Farino
Starring Leighton Meester, Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener