Among the ranks of The Oranges’ ensemble cast are some of my all-time favorite actors. It’s therefore disconcerting to discover that not even their vast combined talent can raise this movie to the level of their known abilities. The Oranges is one of those movies that falls into that fissure between comedy and drama but succeeds at neither, specializing instead in satire that’s too broad and drama that’s spineless and unappealing.
Suburbia always has been (and will, no doubt, remain) an easy target for potshots, and The Oranges – which is set in West Orange, N.J. – jumps on the bandwagon. Yet the screenplay by Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss never really sets up anything terribly derisive or corrosive about the community. The residents’ worst offenses are their overindulgent Christmas yard ornaments and their comfortable incomes. The filmmakers seem to want us to think of the characters as social liberals who are revealed to be narrow-minded traditionalists in the face of threats to their domestic sphere, but I think most characters, no matter their home base, would respond just as these suburbanites do when presented with the circumstances in this screenplay.
Two married couples live across the street from one another and are the best of friends. Their children, too, were raised together, inseparable until the pretty one stole the frumpy one’s high school sweetheart. But as we’re introduced to the families, the filmmakers make us privy to the undercurrents of tension and boredom in the marriages and the inability of both daughters, now in their 20s, to adapt to the responsibilities of adult life. So when Nina Ostroff (Meester) arrives home for Thanksgiving after five years away, her dad’s best friend, David Walling (Laurie), is ready to look at the girl with fresh eyes. Only a half hour into the film, Nina and David have declared their love for one another, and we spend the next hour watching two families come apart while battling their provincial attitudes toward a 50-year-old married man setting up house with his best friend’s daughter, who is half his age. The filmmakers remain nonjudgmental regarding the situation, leaving viewers on their own to figure out whether this is the stuff of comedy or tragedy. It doesn’t help matters that the characters are sorely undeveloped, allowing these usually marvelous actors only single traits to work with.
There is also a metanetwork of resonances in The Oranges that might strike some viewers as odd. Hugh Laurie, the star of TV’s now-defunct House, had a two-episode arc with Leighton Meeser back in Season Three. Also, the property destruction wrought by Paige (Keener), David’s affronted wife, is reminiscent of the actions that sent Dr. House to jail at the close of the show’s next-to-last season. (Note, however, that The Oranges was filmed in 2010, and thus predates that 2011 TV episode.) Another mind-twister is that only a few films back in their joint filmographies, Oliver Platt and Catherine Keener played husband and wife in Please Give; soon after, in The Oranges, each is married to another. None of these things are necessarily crippling but, cumulatively, they underscore the fact that The Oranges has little original shading.