I am not going to lie: my hopes were pretty high for “The Oranges”, the latest “winter of our suburban discontent” dramedy that Hollywood threw at us. After all. the movie DOES feature (rather impressively) the all-star character acting/subtly hilarious team of Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, and Hugh Laurie. Add to that a pretty promising cool kids trio of Alia Shawkat, Leighton Meester, and Adam Brody, then throw them into a risque scenario involving both May-December romances, friends-as-family dynamics and the holiday season. Where could this possibly go wrong? But, sadly, it does. Not in a “OMG, THIS IS JUST UNBEARABLE TO WATCH” (though there is a moment or two like that) but more of that feeling you felt when you first watched “The Family Stone” and were, well, just not quite buying it.
The premise is, as I mentioned, promising (and narrated with quarter-life-crisis deadpan by Shawkat’s Vanessa): the The Wallings (Laurie and Keener, with Brody and Shawkat as the offspring) and The Ostroffs (Platt, Janney, and Meester) have always been best family friends, over in the dependable The Oranges. They eat together, jog together, spend their upper-middle-class New Jersey money on gadgets together, and raise their children together.
The children, for their part, are ok but not QUITE as ok as they could be: Vanessa Walling is three years out of design school and still living at home, her ex-best friend Nina Ostroff (Meester) is a wild child with serious commitment issues when it comes to both jobs, men and coming home for the holidays. Toby (Brody) is the dependable FTC careerist who, well, could use some light-to-medium loosening up.
Things take a decidedly rotten turn when Nina shows up for Thanksgiving, heartbroken and messy, and within an evening back at home she yoyos with the emotions of everyone around her. As if some internal mechanism propels her to just be as destructive as can be, she and David Walling (Hugh Laurie) share a misguided kiss on a couch of his “man cave,” which leads to a misguided affair, which leads to a misguided… well, a misguided rest of the movie, sadly.
Most of the issues can be blamed on the sheer improbability of this happening. Yes, Nina is young and pretty, and yes David and his wife Paige (a steely Keener) have been having some issues, but the chemistry is just not there. And would David REALLY throw away decades of friendship with his BFF, his true other half Terry (Platt), for this obviously doomed affair with his daughter, which, in a best case scenario, has the shelf life of a Christmas tree in one’s living room?
Sadly, this is what writers Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss propose, director Julian Farino (making a feature length debut after solid if non-grounbreaking work on HBO’s “How to Make it In America” and “Entourage”) runs with, and our extremely capable cast must shoulder.
Not quite sure whose side to take, the movie doesn’t take sides, not allowing characters to fully develop (Janney is a ball of nervous, nosy comedic pleasure any time she is on the screen, and watching her interact with Keener more would have a pleasant diversion from all the Father-Daughter-Father dynamics). Despite keeping the movie trim at 90 minutes it still feels somehow both too long and too short at the same time. Given more room to breathe The Oranges could have been a great HBO or Showtime mini-series – 4 episodes, 60 minutes each, working out all the angles and kinks and letting the cast spread their wings a little (after all, if you’re not going to let them do that, why cast them?). This way, it is but a slight feature, pleasant enough in that uncomfortable way that you know will end almost too tidily for everyone’s own good.
Which, eventually it does. Not enough lessons learned here.