Adam Brody, adult children, adult friendships, Alia Shawkat, Allison Janney, Catherine Keener, cinema, co-writers, dramas, dramedy, estranged family, film reviews, films, friends, Hugh Laurie, Ian Helfer, infidelity, Jay Reiss, Julian Farino, Leighton Meester, male friendships, middle age, midlife crisis, Movies, Oliver Platt, romance, Sam Rosen, set during the holidays, suburban homes, The Oranges, troubled marriages, voice-over narration
While the “May-October” relationship between twenty-something-year old Nina (Leighton Meester) and fifty-something-year old David (Hugh Laurie) may be at the center of director Julian Farino’s The Oranges (2011), the “bromance” between David and next-door-neighbor/Nina’s father, Terry (Oliver Platt) is really the heart of the film. David and Terry, along with their respective families, are the kinds of neighbors that only seem to exist in cinematic versions of the real worlds, life-long friends who are close as kin and connected at the hip. This sense of unity is shattered as David’s family tries to come to terms with his infidelity and Nina’s family tries to come to terms with the fact that their beloved, if wayward, daughter is romantically involved with their middle-aged best friend. Bonds will be tested, relationships will fray and lots of life lessons will be learned: welcome to the “dramedy” as filtered through an after-school special.
Named after West Orange, New Jersey, The Oranges is anchored by the nearly constant voice-over presence of Vanessa (Alia Shawkat), David and Paige’s (Catherine Keener) daughter. Vanessa and Nina used to be as inseparable as their respective parents until Nina left Vanessa behind for the “cool kids” in high school, wedging a divide between the two that continues into the present. Vanessa is a rather aimless individual: she always wanted to be a designer but ends up working at Ikea, which is “close enough.”
Vanessa and her family’s lives are thrown into turmoil when Nina suddenly reappears after five years away from home. She’s just walked in on her fiancée, Ethan (Sam Rosen), with his tongue down someone else’s throat and has come back home to pull herself back together. Once home, Nina’s pushy mother, Cathy (Allison Janney), “encourages” her to go out with David and Paige’s son, Toby (Adam Brody), home for the holidays before heading to China for his job. When Toby has a little too much Christmas cheer, however, Nina ends up hanging out with David in his “man-cave” and watching TV. Turns out that David and Paige are kind of on the rocks right now: he’s been sleeping on the couch and she’s been throwing herself into her choir group with the kind of zeal normally reserved for hoarding animals. Before you can say, “Uh oh,” David and Nina have shared an illicit kiss, which blossoms into a full-blown love affair.
Once the affair hits the bright light of public opinion, however, things start to go rapidly downhill: Terry takes a swing at David, Vanessa calls her former friend a “slut” and blames her for breaking up her parents and Cathy pointedly asks her daughter if she enjoys “sucking on David’s old balls.” David and Nina are determined to make their relationship work, however, regardless of how it affects those around them. Just when Terry seems to be thawing a little, however, Ethan shows up on their doorstep, bound and determined to win Nina back: looks like everybody, especially the “adults,” are going to have a lot of growing up to do.
For the most part, The Oranges is a pretty by-the-book, formulaic “family in crisis” film, albeit one that hedges more on the side of the serious rather than the humorous: this is a “dramedy” where the comedy aspect is more ironic than anything else. With that being said, the film is blessed with a truly great cast doing great work: at times, this is enough to elevate the rather tired material, although there’s always an unfortunate “been there, done that” feel to everything. Keener, as always, is a master of the slow burn and her eventual breakdown is a textbook example of how to lash out while still keeping the audience firmly on one’s side. Shawkat, such a stand-out in Arrested Development, shows a serious side to her performance that’s rather bracing: there’s real pain and anger in her interactions with her father that are almost difficult to watch, at times. Janney gives another sturdy performance, with the highlight being the scene where she, literally, bumps into David and Nina at a no-tell motel. Meester, for her part, plays Nina as a flighty, impetuous and eminently selfish creature, so wrapped up in her own needs and wants that she doesn’t take any time whatsoever to consider those around her. It’s a rather unpleasant character, to be honest, and the filmmakers do nothing particular to sand off her rough edges: by the time Nina has completed her character arc, she’s the furthest thing from a sympathetic character but she certainly feels like a real person.
Without a doubt, however, The Oranges belongs to Hugh Laurie and Oliver Platt: their relationship is the true center of the film and provides the movies with the majority of its big emotional beats. In fact, the scene where the former friends finally stop and say hi to each other, in passing, is so impossibly sad and lovely that it handily eclipses any of the similar scenes between Nina and David or Nina and Ethan: this is a romance, true, but it’s not the one that folks might be expecting. There’s a breezy quality to Laurie and Platt’s interactions that feels 100% genuine, even in the more awkward, uncomfortable moments: this feels like how real people might handle this situation, warts and all.
Ultimately, The Oranges is a well-made, if exceedingly familiar, production: while the film breaks no new ground and feels remarkably free of real tension and conflict, the acting is superb and the movie is quick-paced and a pleasant-enough watch. More than anything, however, watching The Oranges brings up a very important question: why the hell hasn’t Hugh Laurie done more work like this? He brings a real sense of nuance and subtlety to his performance that’s light-years from anything he did on either Jeeves and Wooster or House. We need more Hugh Laurie, no two ways about it: The Oranges might not blow anyone away but it gives us that fix and that’s going to have to be good enough for the time being.