With a chemistry-free romance, a sitcom sensibility and a soft, round cavity where its humanity might have been, “The Oranges” is an unpalatable confection whose sophomoric approach to its very adult subject is likely to leave some auds bewildered and others actively offended. Odd-coupling comedy, pairing the father of one suburban family with the daughter of another, boasts a name cast that includes Hugh Laurie, Allison Janney and Oliver Platt, but Brit helmer Julian Farino’s Stateside feature debut won’t win him many allies.
On a bucolic suburban street in West Orange, N.J., live the Ostroffs — David (Laurie) and Paige (Catherine Keener) — and the Wallings — Terry (Platt) and Cathy (Janney). The four are best friends, their combined families a virtual clan: The Ostroffs have two kids, go-getter Toby (Adam Brody) and acerbic hipster/aspiring designer Vanessa (Alia Shawkat, the only cast member who emerges unscathed). The Wallings have Nina (Meester), who announces after a years-long absence from New Jersey that she isn’t coming home for Thanksgiving — again — because she’s getting married to Ethan (Sam Rosen), whom she almost immediately discovers cheating on her. Hello, West Orange.
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Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss’ script does a weak job of setting up the various characters, with the exceptions of Shawkat’s Vanessa (the voice of the movie, talking us through various transitions in the storyline) and Janney’s Cathy, meddlesome mother extraordinaire. When Nina arrives home, free of Ethan, Cathy immediately starts maneuvering her daughter into a relationship with Toby. But it’s not Toby whom Nina wants; it’s his father, David. Their mutual fascination, unsubstantiated by anything in the screenplay or the acting, is about to create a virtual landfill of human wreckage.
Such things happen, and people get through it. It even seems funny, sometimes, in retrospect. But it’s not that funny while it’s happening, and while other people’s pain can be the enriched plutonium of explosive comedy, “The Oranges” fizzles, because it doesn’t provide characters one cares about, direct our empathy properly or show much in the way of emotional awareness. It’s a movie that gleefully celebrates the union of a 24-year-old woman and a fiftysomething man, romping over a sand dune and around in a bed while the music gaily underscores the supposed victory of their love — only to then turn around and beg our sympathy for their victims.
Farino does what he can with what he’s given, but the real fault lies with the script, with its broad, soft jokes and infantile approach to very adult subject matter, which has an averse effect on the performances. The usually terrific Laurie can’t do much with a character as undeveloped as David, and Meester miscalculates by playing Nina as not just unsympathetic but dislikable, her attitude about the chaos she’s wrought verging on the sociopathic. The most gratifying moment in “The Oranges” — the only one, actually — arrives late in the game, when Nina gets soundly slapped by Paige, though Keener is similarly ill-served here.
It would be curious if the pic actually sparked some public discussion about the morality or lack thereof in the storyline, which is mirrored in the filmmaking. “There are no rules,” Nina tells David as they’re preparing to consummate their untidy romance. Well, there are in comedy, even if “The Oranges” ignores them.
Production values are fine, although the musical cues are occasionally inane.