There are some very fine comedic performances in ‘The Oranges’, but the plot never lets it become anything terrifically special, thus hampering the potential quality of the work. There are no shortage of Christmas-time set dysfunctional family flicks out in the world, so to distinguish yourself you really need to put out that extra bit of effort. Director Julian Fellows and his cast are doing their best, but the script they’re working off of from Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss is rather small in its ambition and often contrived in its execution, leading to only brief moments of originality. I certainly was amused by this movie, which opens on Friday, but the end result is that you leave the theater wondering if your time was actually well spent. There’s funny bits, but no true spark that makes you really remember the moments except while they’re happening. The performances of Hugh Laurie and Leighton Meester in particular help with the appeal of the flick, and a similar thing goes for the rest of the ensemble, but overall there’s just not quite enough here to recommend. You could do a lot worse than ‘The Oranges’ with your holiday themed flicks this year, but you definitely could do better as well.
The film follows the friendship between two families and how it’s tested one year during the holidays. For the longest time, the Walling and Ostroff clans have been closer than some families ever will be. Patriarchs David Walling (Laurie) and Terry Ostroff (Oliver Platt) are the best of friends, and along with their wives Paige Walling (Catherine Keener) and Carol Ostroff (Allison Janney), they do everything together. Daughters Vanessa Walling (Alia Shawkat) and Nina Ostroff (Meester) used to be close, but have drifted apart since their teenage years. Nina has returned home for Thanksgiving after a breakup and a half decade absence from her home, and so has Toby Walling (Adam Brody), but the expected pairing never happens. Instead, Nina and David begin seeing each other, connecting in a way neither of them has before. Of course, this implodes the relationships the families have shared, not to mention changing the dynamics within each family completely. As Thanksgiving turns to the Christmas season, allegiances are chosen, breakups and pairings occur, and the enduring friendships are put to the test. The ending is about what you’d expect, and that’s kind of a shame when you think about the potential that’s suggest at certain points during the movie.
You can’t fault the actors for this flick not fully satisfying, as they not only all have a good time but put forward very solid performances as well here. Hugh Laurie especially goes above and beyond in essaying a character who literally cheats on his wife yet never loses your sympathies. That’s not a function of the script, but rather a function of the performance. Laurie is hardly a hack, but in theaters he’s rarely been this good, usually saving his talents for television. Leighton Meester has never impressed me on the big screen, but she’s good here and really plays the character for more than you’d expect. Meester isn’t going to get an Oscar nomination for this, but if this is any indication of what she can do, I’m certainly going to be looking forward to her in cinemas going forward. Oliver Platt is a bit quirkier here than you’d think, but he’s always enjoyable and this is no exception. The wives are both underutilized, with Catherine Keener getting more to do than Allison Janney, but neither really leaves a huge impression. As for Alia Shawkat, she’s essentially the main character, but the script is completely uninterested in her, leading to Shawkat getting very little to do. The cast also includes the aforementioned Adam Brody, along with Aya Cash, Tim Guinee, and Sam Rosen, but Laurie and Meester are the ones to notice here.
Director Julian Farino is a veteran television director and he does bring a more simple aesthetic to the project. That’s not a bad thing since his pacing is fine and he directs his actors quite well, but he is somewhat smacked around by a below average screenplay. Scribes Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss don’t really seem to be making a huge effort here, and it shows. I certainly didn’t hate their script, but they too often seem to be content only to go for the easy laugh and barely advance their already simple plot. They never do anything incredibly wrong, but they never go for the gold and you leave the movie vaguely dissatisfied. The direction and the acting aren’t to blame, but the writing is…
Overall, ‘The Oranges’ is definitely not the worst thing coming out this weekend, but it’s not the best either and likely will be forgotten in the very near future. Hugh Laurie and Leighton Meester are the ones to watch and appreciate here, but too little of the flick manages to stay with you. I’m not recommending the movie, but I won’t tell you to avoid it either. It’s pretty much a compromise film, so take that into account. I think you can do better, but feel free to see it and decide for yourself.
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Tags: Alia Shawkat, Allison Janney, Catherine Keener, Cinema of the United States, Entertainment/Culture, film reviews, Hugh Laurie, Ian Helfer, Jay Reiss, Julian Farino, Leighton Meester, Oliver Platt, The Oranges