“Life in the Oranges in dependable.”
A couple of weeks back, I reviewed the dismal Trouble With the Curve and opened my article with one of the film’s quotes where star Clint Eastwood makes a poorly conceived and completely insensible joke aimed at New Jersey, my native state. Now, this joke, which was truthfully an insult of sorts, was so moronic that all I could do was shake my head at the sad attempt of jabbing at a state that unfairly has been given a bad reputation. But all is well, for this weekend comes the new independent comedy, The Oranges. This film spits back in Trouble With the Curve’s face with lots of laughs, heart, truths, winning performances, witty writing, and a warm feeling that molds a smile on to the viewers’ faces.Oh, it also completely reaffirms my love for the state of my birth – all qualities that Robert Lorenz’s dull and lifeless family baseball dramedy wishes it had.
Set in the homey town of West Orange, New Jersey, an archetypal suburbia that is presented as the backdrop for an interpretation of rural life and problems that are generational, maternal, parental, and all around familial, the film is a wacky tale that zips around the quaint towns of Essex County, through Paramus, and even makes a dash to Atlantic City, placing a lot of the drama near small landmarks and structures that had me pointing at the screen and saying, “I know where that is!” quietly to myself. While the setting was already enough to grab me, The Oranges is definitely much, much more. It tells the story of a matured young girl, Nina Ostroff (Leighton Meester), who returns home after years of being away and attempts to assimilate back into routine life with her pushy mother and oblivious father (Allison Janney and Oliver Platt), and their neighbors, the Wallings (Catherine Keener and Hugh Laurie), who still care for their youngest daughter, Vanessa (Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat), a one time best friend of Nina’s. Venessa is our narrator and she grants us entry into this scandalous extended family where Nina, beautiful and far older in her personality and attitude than she should be, begins an adulterous relationship with Mr. Walling. thus crippling a marriage, a parent-child relationship, and a multitude of friendships. The comedy then sprints along and manages to be consistently unexpected, humanistic, entertaining, hilarious, and thoughtful as it provides a mental escapism for rules proving that life in the suburbs is typically abnormal.
Though physically on the periphery for most of the story, Alia Shawkat’s narration is the voice within our own head, representing the ethically sound morality of the viewers. She observes the most enjoyable familial collapse I’ve seen on film recently as her parents break apart and the friendship between the consumerist fathers and sarcastic mothers hits a flatline. The prospect of her father falling in love with her former best friend rattles around in her head, forcing us to think about the nauseating chance that this could happen to us one day.
Breaking away from Dr. House, Hugh Laurie turns in a very fine performance as Vanessa’s dad who begins the taboo romance with Nina and destroys the relationship he has with his wife. Catherine Kenner, though always reliable, is the most underused within the acting assemblage; Allison Janney, after a phenomenal single scene performance in Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts, continues to astound in The Oranges. Possessing the presence of a stage actress, Janney must have a comic mutation for her dry delivery from her exasperated characters always hits the targeted funny bones. She’s a performer who has the ability to leave every viewer in stitches without losing sight of the reality involved, she cuts through seriousness like a knife. Her on screen husband, Oliver Platt, is also at the top of his game. But, surprisingly, it is Leighton Meester who runs away with this movie.
The Gossip Girl actress, whose previous film roles have been far less than stellar, finally proves that her name is one worth knowing. Honestly, throughout the entire film I had no idea who the actress playing Nina Ostroff was. She had a striking resemblance to Heather Graham, reminiscent of her looks circa Boogie Nights, but she was an actress whose identity was a complete mystery to me. To say my jaw-dropped during the credits when it was revealed that this talented actress, the sly instigator of trouble with the alluring persona who turns out to be the personified catalyst, was Leighton Meester is an understatement. I sincerely hope that her performance in The Oranges leads to more roles like this, I’ve realized that she is an actress far more talented than I initially suspected.
Directed by Entourage alum Julian Farino, The Oranges is like American Beauty doused in a helping of Juno, but it never extends too far into either of those genre territories. The film is never overly dramatic or annoyingly quirky, it fits into its own brand of independent comedy and features a surplus of laughs. Wonderfully written by first timers Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss, The Oranges could have easily been adapted from (or could easily be adapted into) a stage play for it’s the ideal storyline and length (a brisk ninety minutes) for a live production; a lot of comparisons can be drawn for those who have seen Carnage, either the original stage version or Roman Polanski’s 2011 film variation. There are a lot of adult arguments with younger characters caught in the middle with so much belittling involved that it can be hard to tell, sometimes, who’s an adult and who’s a child. There’s a strong sense of love running throughout the film, but given the thematic content of the story it can become hard to respect the film ethically. That’s where the marvelous cast comes into play for they make The Oranges into something that I was not expecting it to be: A remarkably strong and uplifting comedy that is so honest and incredibly genuine that it has the potential to nab an honorable mention as one of my favorite films of the year.
As if the film could not be any more perfect, the story is set during the fall months running through Thanksgiving and Christmas. As I am only a few weeks away from returning to the wonderful suburbia of New Jersey for these very holidays, I can only wonder if a situation as crazy and absurd, but also as heartwarming, as what transpires in The Oranges is happening only two towns over from my hometown of Montclair. Kevin Smith proved with his View Askew films, like Tom McCarthy did with last year’s Win Win, that New Jersey is a fantastic place to set character driven comedies, it must come from the fact that the Garden State nurtures some bizarrely marvelous people.
But, thankfully, The Oranges is a movie everyone can love, not just New Jersians.
Review by Mike Murphy