Filmmakers love the listless, amorphous depression that seems to coat the American suburbs and their hapless residents.
It’s laid on thick in the opening scene of Julian Farino’s feature film debut “The Oranges,” as Vanessa Walling (Alia Shawkat), poses the film’s driving conflict in an ironic Daria monotone: “The question of happiness has preoccupied philosophers, poets and pharmaceutical companies for thousands of years.”
Though, the answer the film provides is not drugs or positive thinking, but rather, a very awkward affair, which narrowly dodges pedophiliac territory to instead venture into the land of non-chemistry and significant glances.
Intermittently narrated by Vanessa, emotionally stunted in life (stuck in the ‘burbs, man!) and career (vague fear of failure, gosh!), “The Oranges” follows the breakdown and rebuilding of two families that are totally best friends all the time. Well, except for the daughters from the two families—who no longer speak because of a high school tiff— the son—who is clueless and in China for much of the movie—and the wife-husband blocs, who only seem to interact with each other.
We see barely any friendship between Paige Walling (Catherine Keener) and Terry Ostroff (Hugh Laurie), or David Walling (Oliver Platt) and Carol Ostroff (Allison Janney).
The ladies and the bros leave each other alone most of the time, though everyone has their narrow vices to escape the dreary oppression of the bourgeoisie New Jersey suburbs. Paige latches on to causes like caroling with religious fervor, while Terry obsesses with gadgets, and his invention of Ultimate Frisbee (Joel Silver jokes abound). Meanwhile, Carol meddles and lives vicariously through everyone, Nina travels constantly and “needs a man to validate her existence” (actual quote, thank you Vanessa), and Terry screws his best friend’s daughter. These respective tropes are established early on and are then dragged around by the collar throughout, rather than carefully developed.
Hugh Laurie and Leighton Meester have somewhat shining moments, though they both seem to have been instructed to act like high schoolers. And while Catherine Keener has some fantastic crazy-lady breakthroughs as Terry’s spurned wife, she’s pulled back too soon.
The standout, however, is Allison Janney’s Carol, who manages to be consistently and legitimately funny in a way that meddlesome mothers are, without reducing her character into a caricature.
The problem here is that there’s no clear sort of decision or commitment in terms of emotional height. “The Oranges” wants to be a nice, occasionally funny movie that makes you consider the possibility that unexpected events that sound terribly, terribly shitty in theory could, in fact, turn out to be wonderful for everyone.
Instead, it meanders somewhere in between a few amusing episodes, some cringe-worthy yet poignant ones (Nina Ostroff: “People get married at 24!” Carol Ostroff: “Not white girls from New Jersey!”) and a whole lot of stunted moments. The most dramatic scenes are left out, and we’re thrown into the middle of the most loaded conversations in the film.
Through all of the turmoil that never seems real–not even when Paige runs over the holiday decorations Terry has festooned the lawn with–everyone seems to find their happy place.
Despite the half-assed moral quandaries of the characters, everyone turns out perfectly alright: They keep their big ol’ houses, get wonderful jobs, and they’re all ostensibly still friends. The underlying message implies that being selfish for the sake of happiness will eventually lead to everyone finding themselves and their rightful place in the world. But what blocks that message most is how no people would ever react the way the Ostroff’s and the Walling’s react in most of the situations they’re placed in. There’s no room for long-standing grudges or history in “The Oranges,” or for any sort of emotion spanning longer than the holiday season.