In West Orange, New Jersey, bourgeois domesticity is put through the wringer in "The Oranges," a movie whose exceptional cast far outshines its meager insights. Over one unusually fraught holiday season, two married couples, the Wallings (Catherine Keener and Hugh Laurie) and the Ostroffs (Allison Janney and Oliver Platt)--long-time friends with homes that face each other across a quiet suburban street--plunge into a joint mid-life crisis.
The rapid descent is initiated by David (Laurie’s character), a sad-sack bound in loveless wedlock, who cannot resist the coquettish purrs of the Ostroffs’ peripatetic twenty-something daughter, Nina (Leighton Meester). After a hesitant make-out session in David’s "man cave," they eventually attempt a motel rendezvous, but it is broken up by Nina’s ever-intrusive Alpha-dog mom, Carol (Janney).
By shaving off his sexy facial stubble and letting his bald spot shine free, Laurie convincingly escapes his Dr. Gregory House persona, the Holmesian curmudgeon he played on television for eight years. Whereas House would have seen right through Nina’s manipulations, and toyed with them, David is too blinded by his own emotions to think clearly. So, with his normally sound judgment and "nice guy" instincts impaired, David trades in his predictable life for an exciting new one.
Both David’s family and the Ostroffs are, of course, caught in the wake of this decision, which director Julian Farino and his two screenwriters, Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss, mine mostly for laughs. The always pitch-perfect Janney and Platt provide the bulk of them, as Nina’s polar-opposite parents, each of whom responds to the affair without either care or understanding.
As Terry Ostroff, Platt acts his role in a constant state of near catatonia, as his character struggles with David’s betrayal and his daughter’s indiscriminate hormones. Meanwhile, Carol is in full-on attack mode, lobbing devastating barbs at David and Nina that underscore every possible argument against their May-October romance. Janney, who also paired well with Platt in their few scenes together on "The West Wing," never lets us forget, however, that there is a loving edge to Carol’s overbearing behavior.
Through no fault of her own, Keener does not fare as well. As Paige, David’s jilted wife, she gives as much of a performance as her underwritten part allows. The filmmakers do fill in the basics: Paige is normally a goody two-shoes with a passion for Christmas caroling; she knows how to properly set a dinner table; her husband’s adultery upsets her; and, like anyone in her situation, she is capable of vindictiveness. But, beyond these facts, Helfer and Reiss do not let us know much about her character, because knowing more would disrupt the facile tone of their script.
Intercut throughout with festive Christmas images, "The Oranges" initially is chock full of fitting, if not all that clever, irony but, as it unfolds, this melts away into puddles of sentimentality. It’s as if everyone involved decided that they would rather be making "A Christmas Story" than a film that might depress someone.
"The Oranges" is narrated by David’s daughter, Vanessa (Alia Shawkat), who hates Nina for reasons beyond the salient ones of schtupping her dad and breaking up her parents’ marriage. Once the best of friends, with dreams of traveling the world together in a marijuana haze, Vanessa and Nina drifted apart when Nina became popular in high school and Vanessa did not. Now, Vanessa is trapped in a post-college limbo, bitterly passing the days in her parents’ house, while Nina has become the adventuress they both wanted to be.
Still, Vanessa seems to have less reason to hold a grudge than her older brother, Toby (Adam Brody), does. He himself was on the verge of fulfilling his boyhood dream of bedding Nina, before his dad swooped in and whisked her away. It is just one in a string of icky realities Helfer and Reiss can only address in a joking manner.
Although, obviously, one can often find humor even in the worst circumstances, "The Oranges" looks for it a bit too intently, as if the audience cannot handle the tragedy inherent in a story about a broken marriage, shattered friendships, and life’s other disappointments. Over the course of the movie, some tears are shed, but certainly not enough of them given what the characters are doing both to each other and to themselves.
And when Vanessa’s final voice-over punctuates the movie with a full-round of happy endings, "The Oranges" feels like nothing more than a bunch of early middle-class Christmas cheer, wrapped in the phoniest of packages.