Film Review – The Oranges
Julian Farino’s The Oranges (2011) lives or dies by the effectiveness of its premise. If you can believe that a middle-aged family man can fall in love with the twenty-something-year-old daughter of his best friend, then it may work. If you can’t buy into that, the rest of the movie will fall apart before it ever gets going. For me, unfortunately, it fell into the latter category. Here is a story of two dysfunctional families trying to mold some semblance of a “normal” life despite a situation that deeply affects them all. As much as Farino (along with writers Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss) tries to steer us with the message “everything happens for a reason,” not at any time did I feel persuaded into thinking that. In fact, the further the story developed, the more I kept thinking, “this is just wrong.”
It’s been said that age is just a number—okay, I can believe that. Younger people fall in love with older people all the time; there’s nothing unique about it. The problem here is that the two characters involved have known each other for years. David Walling (Hugh Laurie) and Nina Ostroff (Leighton Meester) have known each other ever since Nina was a little kid. The Walling and Ostroff families have lived across the street (named Oranges Ave.) from one another and have been friends for quite some time. They hold barbeques at each other’s homes, spend Christmas together, and sometimes they seem to walk into each other’s doorways without having to knock. David’s best friend is Nina’s father, Terry (Oliver Platt), and they routinely go on jogs together. In other words, the Wallings and Ostroffs know each other almost in and out, as if they were all a part of one whole family.
Can you see where this can get a little inappropriate? If the two groups are pretty much one family separated by a different last name, then how can David and Nina ever find any kind of physical attraction towards one another? Wouldn’t David see Nina as too much of a niece, and wouldn’t Nina see David as too much of an uncle? Call me old-fashioned, but this relationship is all kinds of gross. To go even further, the writing doesn’t give us enough to believe that either Nina or David would be so desperate as to turn to the other. Nina is an outgoing, adventurous, spontaneous spirit, much to the dismay of Terry and his wife Carol (Allison Janney). Of course, nothing says “adventurous” like having a fling with a settled down, suburban husband and father. For David, there’s not enough development to understand why he would want to leave his hardworking, caring wife Paige (Catherine Keener). Just because you say “we haven’t been happy for a long time” doesn’t give you justification to jump into the arms of the next door neighbor’s kid.
And in the middle of it all is Vanessa (Alia Shawkat), the youngest of the Walling children, who also narrates the story for us. As the film progressed, I continuously thought back to Vanessa and how much the predicament was affecting her. This is the one interesting character in the whole movie, who actually has some lasting quality and who isn’t always thinking about herself. While Nina was out seeing the world, Vanessa was home developing her portfolio and resume in hopes of moving to the big city. It’s a shame that a character like Vanessa is continuously on the outside looking in. Her character is constantly kept at a distance, and whatever fascinating arc she could have had was treated as a second thought. Perhaps it was supposed to be that way, but it didn’t feel like it. As Nina and David try to live happily together and everybody else tries to adapt, Vanessa seems to be pushed to the wayside. When her brother Toby (Adam Brody) comes back from overseas and learns about what has happened, even he seems to be brought into the fold more than she was. It felt as though the only thing preventing Vanessa from just running away from everything was her requirement to tell the story.
Is The Oranges a comedy, a drama, or both? It certainly wasn’t funny enough to be considered a straight comedy, and it wasn’t moving enough to be treated as a drama. It asks us to examine the characters in a serious and thoughtful way, but then the emotional apex comes when Paige runs over David’s Christmas decorations on the front lawn. I can understand what it was trying to do—show a group of people going through a troubling time in hopes of finding a better place. What I was unable to shake was its main setup. Everyone here appears to be smart and level-headed; nothing tells me that their lives are so difficult that they would risk everything they have for some alternate idea of happiness. Sometimes, just sometimes, white picket fences and an SUV aren’t all that bad.
Final Grade: C