I attended a screening of The Oranges as the last hot, steamy days of summer trailed off, and beside wanting to see a film with so many favorite actors (Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, Hugh Laurie, Catherine Keener), I relished the thought of spending 90 minutes watching a holiday comedy set in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. (Every August, the only thing that keeps me slogging through day after day of 90-degree+ temps and stifling dew points is the thought that crisp, sunny days, cool nights and the big wind-up to the holiday season are right around the corner.)
The trouble that ensues when the husband (Laurie) of one of two very close couples starts an affair with the twenty-four-year-old daughter (Leighton Meester) of the other pair sounded like an interesting prospect, to see how the writers would handle it and how this talented quartet would make it happen.
But the execution of the affair and the days leading up to it (Meester’s character returns home to suburban West Orange, New Jersey for Thanksgiving after having suffered a bad break-up out in California) gave no indication of any attraction or connection between Nina and David. Both long-married couples’ relationships are just treading water and surviving through some general malaise. Janney and Keener’s characters regard their husbands as generally bumbling goofballs whom they should both just work around to save themselves any trouble.
On Thanksgiving night, after the rest of the families have headed to bed, Nina joins David, who spends most nights in the guest house, and out of nowhere, they suddenly kiss while watching TV and start an affair, which is soon discovered, wrecking the Christmas season for everyone.
Oliver Platt is adorable as a shambling, muddled, gadget-crazy father, but we don’t really get to know much more about him than that, not even why he seems more concerned by his wife’s outrage at their daughter’s behavior, than over the affair itself.
Hugh Laurie is a milder version of the American guy we know as House, affable and unruffled, but again, we don’t get to know why things disintegrated between his character and Keener’s to the point where they began living apart on the same property.
Both wives are written as brittle, dismissive women and we never crack the surface of either. As far as the wronged spouse goes, when watching the character of Paige (Keener) after the affair came to light, I couldn’t help but think of the distraught reaction of Emma Thompson in Love Actually (also set over the Christmas holidays, funny enough) when she learns that her husband (Alan Rickman) is involved with his young, nubile secretary, and I realized that it was that sort of heart that was absent from The Oranges.
For me, the brightest part of the film was discovering the Kurdish-Irish-Norwegian-American Alia Shawkat in the role of Vanessa, the daughter of Cathy and Terry (Janney and Platt). It was a discovery because I never got into Arrested Development, her big calling card. She’s fresh and different and interesting. By comparison, when Hugh Laurie’s David goes cow-eyed over Nina, we never have a chance to appreciate what is so special about her (other than her looks), and so the affair seems all the more puzzling, since there’s no display of any steamy clinches between the May-December couple, and we’re given to assume that he’s just turned his life upside down for something more than awesome sex, dude, but we have no clue.
Even if you find the cast incredibly appealing, unless you’re a die-hard fan of one of them and can’t help yourself but rush out to the theater, I’d wait for the DVD, if even that.
For a movie that could have been darker, or funnier, or sexier, or more poignant, instead it suffers from the two things that people either love or hate about the suburbs: blandness and boredom.