Movie Review: The Oranges

by Phoebe Magee

Do you love American Beauty, but wish it had a lighter touch and a happier ending — and starred Hugh “Dr. HouseLaurie?

Okay, me neither really. Just checking.  But in case you do fit this particular niche, The Oranges is the suburban dysfunction film for you.

Like a certain rose-petal-covered movie we know, The Oranges is a meditation on American life and American happiness directed by a British dude.  It also uses voice-over to explain its philosophies, and stars Allison Janney as the neighbor’s wife.  Unlike A.B, it’s not going to win any Oscars.  This is what it has going for it: Alia Shawkat, Catherine Keener, and Janney (married to Oliver Platt!).  Besides these ladies, the second best thing about The Oranges is that it presents a slightly new angle on the May-December romance (Gossip Girl‘s Leighton Meester loves Dr. House).

The Oranges is set in affluent West Orange, NJ; “Nice, huh?” deadpans narrator Vanessa Walling (Shawkat), as the camera pans over tree-lined streets and big single-family homes.  Already, I give the movie points for setting “Everytown, USA” in an actual town.  A New Jersey town!  If a movie is set to re-tackle the old “dark side of the suburbs” idea, I for one vote that it should also have to name the particular suburban hell it’s skewering.  But I digress.

In West Orange, the Wallings—father David (Laurie), mother Paige (Keener), and daughter Vanessa live across the street from the Ostroffs.  Terry and Carol Ostroff (Platt and Janney) are best friends with David and Paige.  Their daughter, Nina (Leighton Meester), was once best friends with Vanessa, until Nina “stole” her crush, ditched her for a more popular crowd, and eventually left West Orange altogether (seemingly for good).  Vanessa is left behind, a little bitter, and a little stuck.  But Nina’s past transgressions seem like nothing when she returns home for her first Jersey Thanksgiving in years, a broken engagement in her wake, and promptly embarks on a haphazard affair with Vanessa’s dad.  They may think they’re sneaking around, but there are only so many seedy motels in the suburbs, and Nina’s mom pretty easily (and hilariously) catches them at one.  From there, the movie follows all six adults as their blended neighborhood world comes crashing down—just in time for Christmas.

As I mentioned before, The Oranges handles Nina’s affair with David in a somewhat unexpected way.  Nina is confident, almost to the point of being unlikeable, and as the hot young thing in the relationship you can’t say she’s being exploited.  David, on the other hand, is pleasant, quiet, and seems to make his catastrophic romantic choice almost by accident.  Nina gets hurt by someone she loves, and wants to rebound with an attractive older man.  David is excited by Nina’s beauty and energy.  They don’t really mean to kiss, they don’t really mean to hook up, and they don’t really mean to fall in love.  It just kind of happens, which is both interesting and icky to watch.

Of course, the consequences of all this are pretty huge for everyone around them.  And a bigger problem with the film is that, even though the relationship between Nina and David is sort of nuanced and mutually respectful, there’s also almost no real chemistry between them.  Which makes you wonder why they would be so disrespectful to the people around them.  Which makes you angry because the real chemistry and the real love in the film is between the neighbors: David and Paige love Terry and Carol.  Which makes you think that might be a better, newer idea for a movie anyway.


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