The indie ensemble comedy genre is fraught with pitfalls, from high concepts that just don’t deliver, to outrageous storylines that can’t sustain their own frenzied energy. For every “Little Miss Sunshine” there are countless more that attempt to create that film’s almost intangible alchemy but falter somewhere along the way. “The Oranges” could have gone either way – with Julian Farino a mostly TV director (“Entourage,” “How To Make It In America”) making his sophomore film with a grab bag cast including Hugh Laurie, Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, Alia Shawkat, Adam Brody and Leighton Meeste,r we really had no idea what to expect from the film. But playing to huge laughs, this winning comedy overcomes some of its patchier elements to become a bonafide crowd pleaser.
Written by Jay Reiss and Ian Helfer, this Black List approved script — landing at number two in 2008 — takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas but is not your typical holiday movie. David and Paige Ostroff (Laurie, Keener) and the Terry and Cathy Walling (Platt, Janney) are best friends, who live across the street from each in West Orange, New Jersey (hence the title) but each couple is individually straining during a rocky patch in their relationships. David and Paige keep sniping at each other, while Terry and Cathy have more time for their obsessions (gadgets and Christmas carolling) than each other. However, things change when Terry and Cathy’s daughter Nina (Meester) unexpectedly comes from for Thanksgiving — her first time back in five years — nursing the wounds after breaking up with her fiance.
It’s an unwelcome bit of news for David and Paige’s daughter Vanessa (Shawkat), whose once close friendship with Nina was soured during high school. But it’s their son Toby (Brody) that Cathy transparently wants Nina to get together with. While they do share some time together, Nina’s attentions wander to instead to David. Already displaying a chemistry that goes beyond knowing each other as neighbours, it’s during a late evening in David’s man cave watching Korean basketball that they first kiss. However, it’s on their way to a motel rendezvous a few days later that they are found out and the burgeoning affair sends a fissure though both relationships.
Yes, this is a comedy. What Reiss and Helfer do so well is sharply observe both the absurdity of the situation while giving strong dimension to the reasons why Nina and David commit to giving their relationship a go in the face of all common decency or societal norms. It’s really the cast at this point who all equally rise to the occasion, to deliver the kind of full bodied genuine laughs that make you miss the next couple of lines of dialogue. It’s Meester who surprises the most, playing a young woman who is still figuring out herself in relationships and though having lived years away from home, continues having to prove her independence. The continually underrated Platt delivers a great turn as the sensitive Terry, who is reluctantly forced to cut ties with his best friend (Laurie, who is nothing like the asshole doctor he plays on TV). Janney nearly steals the show as the guilt-tripping, snarking, manipulative mommy while Keener keeps a cage on crazy as Paige, trying to keep it together after being dumped for a much younger woman. It’s difficult to say much more about the plot or gags without ruining the surprises that are in store, but save to say, this cast really makes Reiss and Helfer’s work come bristling to life (and it should be noted Shawkat delivers the single greatest line of the movie that earned nearly sustained applause).
However, as Farino noted prior to the screening, “The Oranges” was literally completed on Thursday and it shows. We won’t be surprised if the film heads back to the editing bay before hitting theaters — it’s guaranteed to get picked up before the fest is over — as there are definitely some patchy elements that need to be worked out. Inexplicably, the film is presented from being from point of view of Vanessa — completely with a voiceover — but before the first third of the movie is over, it mostly drops out and the plot shifts make it increasingly illogical why this character is the narrator of the story. Also, we were pretty sure at least one of the selections of music was a temp track and there is at least one subplot that is quickly forgotten about. Perhaps worse, the film rounds out the story with a montage sequence which is indicative of a larger issue — namely that Reiss and Helfer always chose a laugh over anything with more depth. The film flirts with ideas about non-monogamy and its relation to personal happiness versus sticking out a traditional marriage with nothing but blind, self-sacrificing loyalty, but the film seems afraid to say anything more than that, cutting to a new scene (or ending the film) where a braver movie wouldn’t have been afraid to go a bit heaver on the first part of the word dramedy. There is also a lightness to the movie that almost makes it float completely away — while it is consistently entertaining, there is also not much that sticks after you’ve left the cinema. It’s very much a movie that’s enjoyed in the moment, but won’t have you playing a highlight reel afterward.
But these are really minor quibbles, given the film works more often than it doesn’t, frequently charms and delivers full belly laughs. There is a touch of Judd Apatow in Farnio’s film. The director takes a pretty serious breach of trust committed by Terry and Nina and with the help of the script, deftly navigates between the comic opportunities it presents and very real depiction of people in pain to keep the story rooted to something relatable. While it avoids and ultimately lacks the deeper heart of similar aforementioned films, it does provide a fertile grove for a delivery of big laughs, and these oranges are definitely worth picking. [B]