Directed by Julian Farino
Written by Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss
Voiceover narration isn’t automatically a crutch in modern storytelling, but too many writers use it so they don’t have to do actual work. For every clever use of this literary trick—such as the narration in Sunset Boulevard or The Shawshank Redemption—there are movies and TV shows with no idea of how to enhance already existing stories or character arcs with voiceover. Instead, the people working on those films and shows use narration to move stories forward quickly and artlessly. The Oranges, a would-be biting suburban satire, employs voiceover in such a way that sometimes intentionally references American Beauty, but only serves as a reminder of why that caustic and often incisive black comedy worked so well, and why this film fails so frequently.
If nothing else, The Oranges could’ve been worse had its cast not been so talented. Hugh Laurie stars as David Walling, who lives a seemingly contented life in a tight-knit New Jersey community with his doting, Christmas-obsessed wife Paige (Catherine Keener) and wry daughter/narrator Vanessa (Alia Shawkat). The film opens at Thanksgiving, as David and Paige’s son Toby (Adam Brody) returns from humanitarian work in China. Upon his return, David and Paige’s neighbors, Terry and Carol Ostroff (Oliver Platt and Alison Janney) are eager to set Toby up with their daughter Nina (Leighton Meester), who was Vanessa’s best friend back in high school. Complications arise when, almost immediately, Nina and David find themselves attracted to each other and willing to give in to temptation, causing a ripple effect that changes everyone’s outlooks on life.
The script by Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss lays the groundwork for something intriguing, another in a long line of trenchant and perceptive films that skewer the cookie-cutter aspects of modern-day suburbia. The writers attempt to show how each character (except Toby, who vanishes for most of the film) is changed somehow by David and Nina’s mutual transgression, from Paige becoming more interested in helping out her fellow man to Terry trying to improve his physical and mental well-being. Sadly, The Oranges never goes beyond surface-level traits or ideas; every time it seems like the movie is ready to explore these concepts in depth, Helfer and Reiss throw in a montage or two, which are scored with twinkly, nothing-serious-going-on-here music and Shawkat reciting extremely specific, detailed narration. Here is another film that should’ve memorized the creative-writing axiom “Show, don’t tell.”
Despite the script and often flat direction from Julian Farino, the cast in The Oranges is arguably impressive enough to minimize the film’s flaws while simultaneously making those flaws even more aggravating. Laurie is more neutered here than he ever was on House; however, he does his best to make the audience believe that David wouldn’t simply be physically attracted to the much-younger Nina, but that he actually loves her. (His best doesn’t equal the relationship being believable. Oh well.) Meester is fine as the supposedly charismatic and fascinating Nina; the problem is that, for as much screen time as Laurie and Meester share, David and Nina don’t ever seem as passionate as they say they are. Even if theirs isn’t an all-time love story, if we can’t buy these two hooking up (and not just because they want to hook up) from the get-go, it’s a problem.
Shawkat, always a welcome presence, isn’t a bad narrator; sadly, Vanessa serves less as a fully formed character, and more as a dull omniscient presence. We get the idea that Vanessa’s complacency is killing her future, but Shawkat’s not in enough of the film to make much of an impact. Platt and Janney, two very delightful character actors, are OK here; again, the issue is that we don’t know their characters well enough. If the script was more dedicated to a deep examination of the materialism dominating these people’s lives, to actually filling in these characters with more than a trait or two, each performer could’ve had a gourmet, four-course meal to sink their teeth into, as opposed to a meager appetizer.
The Oranges wants very badly to be considered in the same breath as American Beauty or other recent films and TV shows that mock the 21st-century American life, poking holes in our well-kept existences. Satirizing the suburbs isn’t a new idea, and a May-December romance has its roots, at least in American cinema, in classics like The Graduate. Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss deserve credit, perhaps, for aiming so high; they don’t come anywhere close to the mark, though, mostly because they have no ammunition. The greatest asset The Oranges has is also its most wasted, a solid cast who do their best but can’t hide the fact that the material is too hollow and empty to be profound.
— Josh Spiegel