Sporadic laughs over infidelity
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 5, 2012
On paper, “The Oranges” doesn’t sound like much of a comedy. Surprisingly, the story about the havoc wreaked among two New Jersey couples when one husband begins an affair with his neighbors’ 24-year-old daughter actually has a few laugh-out-loud moments, along with some some funny lines. Most are unprintable.
When the jokes work, it’s for a simple reason: The four actors playing the couples are seasoned veterans of film comedy (although each is more than capable of handling dramatic roles, as well). Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener know from funny.
As Terry and Carol Ostroff, whose daughter Nina’s affair with their friend and neighbor David precipitates the emotional upheaval -- and the ensuing, if sporadic, laughs -- Platt and Janney bring just the right touch of clownish bemusement to the potentially heavy proceedings. And as David and Paige Walling, whose troubled, 28-year marriage is destroyed by David’s infidelity, Laurie and Keener know when to lean on the reality of the situation and when to just let it go.
They’re not the problem. Nina is.
Best known for her portrayal of Blair on TV’s “Gossip Girl,” Leighton Meester is a fine actress, but there’s a lightness and a brightness missing from her performance here. She seems not to have gotten the memo that this is a comedy, not a soap opera. Consequently, Meester takes the film -- and herself -- a little too seriously for everyone’s good.
Another problem: Although the script (by Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss) is somewhat equivocal about whether David or Nina is to blame for the affair, there’s nevertheless a suggestion that it’s Nina who’s the instigator. She’s a little hussy, in the film’s view. He’s the victim. (I was happy to see, though, that Nina only gets slapped in the face by Paige, whereas David is almost run over by his spurned wife.)
Perhaps the subtle sexism is understandable. If David is portrayed as a dirty old man, the story would probably be just too creepy. By making Nina the seductress -- and a humorless one at that -- it lets him off the hook and allows him to be funny.
But it also throws the film slightly off balance, creating a gravity that pulls the other actors down, making the film less of a laugh riot than it should be. It doesn’t help that Nina is consistently upstaged by her best friend, the Wallings’ daughter, Vanessa (played by the gifted comic actress Alia Shawkat of “Arrested Development”). Vanessa, who narrates the movie from a delightfully foul-mouthed perspective -- and a righteous resentment of Nina -- is the film’s hilarious moral center. I found myself wanting a lot more of her and a lot less of Nina.
Other small but amusing performances include Sam Rosen as Ethan, Nina’s slacker ex-boyfriend whose cheating leads to her moving back home. Toward the movie’s conclusion, Ethan tries to win Nina back in a climactic, but less than fully cathartic, showdown among all the characters. That scene leads to a series of tidy compromises and concessions that are meant to suggest that, as more than one character puts it, life “isn’t about being happy.”
Maybe not, but could it at least be a scooch funnier?
Contains vulgarity, drug use and sexual dialogue and situations.