So, let’s get this out of the way. The suburbs? They stink and the plastic smiles on everyone who lives there are thinly veiled disguises for the soul crushing unhappiness and routine that defines their lives. Also, being a young person is hard and their parents are morons even though they secretly find life just as difficult. And did I mention that old guys like to have sex with young women? I know it’s creepy, but there could possibly be love there too. Ok, sound familiar? Well, you’re going to learn all that again in The Oranges, a fairly limp comedy that trots out all these formerly edgy themes for one more round of big screen sitcom shenanigans. It’s not a particularly terrible movie, nor is it a good one. It’s just predictable and mediocre, which is trouble for a comedy since laughter tends to depend on some sort of surprise.
Alia Shawkat (she of Arrested Development fame) stars as a 24-year-old who moving back home to New Jersey after college and before setting out on an inevitably exciting career in the New York design world. She’s lost and listless like all folks her age and spends most of her time watching her parents (Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener) go through their boring suburban routines while smiling away their tears until the sweet release of death. Their only real friends are the neighbors who live across the street who they’ve known their entire lives (Oliver Platt and Allison Janney) and are just as faux happy; maybe even actually happy. They also have a wayward daughter (Leighton Meester) who traveled the globe on a tour of various foreign men’s beds instead of attending college and has a sordid boy-stealing past with Shawkat. One thanksgiving Meester suddenly returns home after a fiancé dumps her. After an awkward dinner in which Janney tries to set her up with Shawkat’s brother (Adam Brody), Meester instead makes out with Laurie. The secret is revealed almost instantly and a family and friendship are destroyed. Shawcat is disgusted with the whole thing, but her parents somehow seem happier separate and maybe, just maybe this wacky May-December romance can work out. Or it’ll blow up and everyone will learn important lessons that will improve their lives. Either way the suburbs just got exciting!
Yeah…so, it’s American Beauty without all that satire and tragedy. Director Julian Farino (whose background is unsurprisingly in network television) shoots in bright colors and keeps things chugging along with a fast pace and gently comedic tone. The film never really treats the family meltdown that seriously, nor does the comedy or sexual subject matter ever stretch beyond the limits of primetime light entertainment. It’s never a mess or boring, nor does it lack laughs. The whole thing is just bland, which given the theoretically shocking subject matter is a bit of a mood killer. The main reason the film remains watchable amidst all the predictability is the cast. Shawkat, Laurie, Keener, Platt, and Janney can all do this brand of light comedy and drama in their sleep. Each actor is cast to type and does their job well. No one mugs for obvious comedy. The performances are kept within the realm of reality with the absurdity coming out of the situations, which is exactly what the film needs. It’s a pleasure just to watch these talents bat dialogue back and forth even when you know what’s going to come out of their mouths before the characters. The only weak link is Meester. She’s not a bad actress, she just takes her role a little too seriously when everyone else is being playful. She has no chemistry with Laurie and their relationship is credible only because she’s like super hot n’ stuff, which is a bit of a problem given that the audience is asked to accept them as a functional couple.
It’s not really worth the effort to come down too hard on The Oranges nor does the film deserve an avalanche of hate. It’s fine and for long passages you could even say it works. The trouble is just that we’ve all been here so many times before and even the cast have played pretty well these exact roles in the past. The appeal of the film will be limited entirely to how much you love seeing these actors. It’s entirely possible that there are die hard Alison Janney fans desperate out there who are to see her play a boring mom who doesn’t know what she’s saying or some people who haven’t quite worked out that the fantasy of the suburbs isn’t real. Those folks are about to discover a magical experience. As for everyone else…well, if you haven’t said “meh” in a while, go check out The Oranges and then try to express your feelings about the film in a single syllable when it’s done.