The Temptations of Suburbia
The Oranges takes place in suburbia West Orange, New Jersey, where longtime family-friends across the street continue to drag out unsaid, boiling problems that ultimately bubble over into perversely problematic, ludicrous ways. At the center of this, but on the periphery in the film, is Vanessa (Ali Shawkat), the live-at-home aspiring designer daughter of unhappily married David (Hugh Laurie) and Paige (Catherine Keener). Her postgraduate domestic inescapability is but a minor problem in their dysfunctional world.
Across the street are friends Terry (Oliver Platt) and Carol (Allison Janey), whose intrepid daughter Nina (Leighton Meester) comes back home for Thanksgiving after being gone for two years. Nina and Vanessa were at one time best friends, but Nina broke free and travelled the world, found a guy, then found him cheating. She comes back miserable, but finds comfort from David, who connects with her, and then weakens into a precarious romance. Then the hoopla begins.
The concept harkens to American Beauty, except these characters have no reasonable emotional complex. Maybe their suburbanized longevity has isolated their former selves, the ones that hopefully had love and joy, which David at one point recalls with his wife. Now, they have transformed into insensitive creatures, families who profess love but don’t show it, and their morally reprehensible actions often feel right instead of wrong.
In the midst of family and friend rupture, Nina tells David to imagine a world with no rules, but he forgets to imagine the real world, the one that has ramifications. How does this affect your wife, your best friend Terry, his wife? What about your daughter Vanessa who has to watch her former friend make out with daddy? There might be some deeper ideological, ethical problems brewing, but this relationship is pure hedonism. As the former football head coach Herm Edwards says, a goal without a plan is just a wish.
There are some laughs to be had, both in snarky quips and in the ridiculousness of each family’s personal incompetence. I think this is supposed to be a comedy. Paige, in the midst of her marital turmoil, organizes Christmas carolers, but on Christmas Eve decides to bail after learning about a holiday program that gives underdeveloped communities animals to feed themselves. She gets a job as a telemarketer for them, shortly after a Chevy Chase-like festive lawn display meltdown. Who are these people?
Their son (Adam Brody) seems to be the only sane person in the household, but maybe that’s because he shares the least screen time. It’s tough watching such shallow characters from strong actors like Janney and Keener, both of whom have previously played warm, protective mothers before.
Perhaps Director Julian Farino and writers Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss thought this demystification of suburbia was untapped or unacknowledged, or worse, deserved a reprieve. These characters are either rational people acting irrationally, or vice versa. The white house, the clipped yard aren’t facades for secrets anymore. We know dysfunction lives everywhere; regrettably, these neighbors are just trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.