Watching the wryly funny Alia Shawkat roll her eyes and vent with deadpan disdain as two families go into a tailspin because her dad is sleeping with his best friend’s daughter, it’s tempting to wonder what twisted comedy magic the actor’s old TV alma mater, Arrested Development, would have spun out of that plotline. Director Julian Farino and the screenwriters of The Oranges, in which the scenario does unfold, are not in that league.
Apprenticed in British television, Farino has been part of the HBO pool since 2004, directing episodes of Entourage, Big Love, Rome and How to Make It in America. His U.S. feature debut, from a patchy script by Jay Reiss and Ian Helfer, is visually undistinguished and relies too heavily on the music slathered over almost every scene to shape its herky-jerky tone. But Farino is good with actors, and in his corner he does have a gifted ensemble, who often manage to hit a sweet spot even in this mediocre material.
Shawkat’s character, Vanessa, stalled in neutral since graduating from design school, is the voiceover commentator of this twin family meltdown. But sadly, she’s not the center of the story. That would be her one-time best friend and neighbor, Nina (Leighton Meester), who returns home after a five-year absence to lick her wounds following a bust-up with her cheating fiancé (Sam Rosen). Bringing chaos in her wake, Nina is capricious, selfish and unsympathetic, oblivious to the pain she’s causing everyone close to her. Yet, in the screenwriters’ psychologically unsound plan, we’re expected to invest in her.
The two sets of parents are the Ostroffs, David (Hugh Laurie) and Paige (Catherine Keener), and the Wallings, Terry (Oliver Platt) and Cathy (Allison Janney), and when the comedy delivers it’s largely due to the timing of these four pros. Neighbors in West Orange, New Jersey, they are so deeply enmeshed in one another’s lives they virtually belong to the same family.
Their friendship provides a cushion from the ripples of marital discord beneath all the backyard barbecues and shared Sunday dinners. David has been spending more nights in his man cave in the pool shed than with Paige for some time. And Cathy only tolerates Terry and his gadget mania by pretending he’s invisible and inaudible.
While both families quietly (or not so quietly in manipulative Cathy’s case) hope Nina will fall into a relationship with Vanessa’s career-minded brother Toby (Adam Brody), instead she chooses his dad as her fallback guy. Fun as it is to watch the resourceful Laurie torpedoed by a mix of lust, guilt and panic, this mutual attraction is grounded nowhere beyond the necessity to wreak comic havoc. Once that’s in motion, the writers let it sit there and fester, not quite sure what to do with it.
Fortunately, Platt has a limitless arsenal of amusing ways to express helpless shellshock, and Janney has a similarly ample range with appalled and exasperated, yielding a good share of genuine laughs. But none of the characters aside from Vanessa – doubly betrayed by Nina, who dumped her in high school to hang with the pretty, popular girls — is written with any consistency. The most ill-served is Paige, a control freak who starts drilling the neighborhood caroling group in August, and a part for which inherently cool Keener is a poor fit.
The director and writers manage capably enough while the action sticks in light, sitcommy mode, but when it turns serious the movie runs out of juice. Its cathartic moments feel fabricated, notably Paige out of nowhere exorcizing her rage on the Wallings’ elaborate front-yard holiday lights. (The action takes place roughly Thanksgiving through Christmas, though it clearly was shot in warmer months.)
Helfer and Reiss push predictable buttons with their message that out of the messiest situations, fresh self-knowledge and serenity can sometimes be hatched. There’s enough generic feelgood stuff in the proudly nonjudgmental film’s themes of love and forgiveness to make undiscerning audiences believe they’re being fed something nutritious. And the holiday-season setting makes theatrical positioning a no-brainer. But a deluxe cast like this one deserves better.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Olympus Pictures, Likely Story Production
Cast: Hugh Laurie, Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, Alia Shawkat, Adam Brody, Leighton Meester, Sam Rosen
Director: Julian Farino
Screenwriters: Jay Reiss, Ian Helfer
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Leslie Urdang, Dean Vanech
Executive producers: Ian Helfer, Jay Reiss, Stefanie Azpiazu, Sam Hoffman, Dan Revers
Director of photography: Steven Fierberg
Production designer: Dan Davis
Music: Klaus Badelt, Andrew Raiher
Costume designer: David Robinson
Editors: Jeffrey M. Werner, Carole Kravetz Aykanian
Sales: CAA (U.S.), FilmNation (international)
No rating, 92 minutes.