Life in the suburbs can be comfortingly predictable, but sometimes that comfort comes at a price. We can get complacent and fail to recognize when things are starting to go wrong until it takes something dramatic to shake everyone out of their stupor. Such is the case in The Oranges, a dry farce about two families in the tony suburb of West Orange, New Jersey weathering just such a crisis.
Vanessa Walling (Alia Shawkat) has moved back in with her parents, David (Hugh Laurie) and Paige (Catherine Keener), after finishing design school, ready to build up a killer portfolio and take Manhattan by storm. But that was a few years ago now. At least she’s got a job in furniture in the meantime — at Huffman Koos.
This leaves her as the fifth wheel at gatherings between the Wallings and their long-time friends across the street. The Ostroffs — Terry (Oliver Platt) and Cathy (Allison Janney) — do have a daughter of their own, but Nina (Leighton Meester) has been wandering somewhat aimlessly since graduating high school and blowing off college. Currently she’s in San Francisco, engaged to Ethan (Sam Rosen), a similar wanderer with — gasp — facial piercings.
But when Ethan cheats on her, Nina changes her plans and shows up in West Orange for Thanksgiving after all. Of course, this gives her mother a chance to meddle; Cathy tries pointing her at the Wallings’ son, Toby (Adam Brody), who works for the Federal Trade Commission. At first Nina indulges the idea, but when Toby falls asleep late after Thanksgiving dinner she wanders out to the Wallings’ pool house where David is encamped. Things haven’t been great between him and Paige, and what with the late hour and the Korean basketball on the television things take a turn for the romantic.
The cast is solid, really capturing the upper-middle-class suburban setting perfectly. Platt’s portrayal of the fumbling gadget-fan father is a really nice touch. The screenplay by Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss leaves a lot of communication unspoken, and director Julian Farino gets a lot across in shifting facial expressions.
And this has a lot to to with how Laurie and Meester can pull off such a difficult relationship without it coming off as too creepy. Laurie reminds us how good he can be when eight years of playing the same character doesn’t feel like a rut. And when he can walk. Meester is at her best, in a part she deserves far more than the one she was given in That’s my Boy. She shows real talent, and not just as a comedic punching-bag.
At it’s heart, I think that The Oranges is really a Christmas movie. Indeed, there’s a lot of Christmas elements to it, and even the name seems to evoke the suburban tradition of oranges in Christmas stockings. And while I can’t say it concludes with peace on Earth and goodwill toward men, everyone does seem to be happier for all the upheaval. After all, family tradition and comforting suburban rituals are only a means to the end of happiness, though we may lose sight of that from time to time.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.