When a parent starts sleeping with one of his or her offspring’s peers, the collateral damage for the families and friends involved tends to be considerable and very dark. These are precisely the kind of domestic train wrecks all the neighbors want to know about though; delicious fodder for the oh-no-he-didn’t gossips. The dramedy The Oranges is about two families impacted by this scenario, but it takes the gleeful neighborly position in the matter. Light as a feather, the movie is at times a modest pleasure, but inconsequential.
Set during the Thanksgiving-through-Christmas holidays, the story is narrated by sarcastic Vanessa Walling (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development fame), 24, who has returned to her West Orange, New Jersey suburban home for a post-college breather, also known as free rent and full fridge. Vanessa is planning on staying with her mother Paige (Catherine Keener) and father David (House’s Hugh Laurie) until she’s ready to move to Manhattan and break into the New York design world. In the meantime she tells herself she’s gathering experience at a local furniture store. “Everything was on track,” Vanessa says in voiceover. “Until what happened happened.”
Namely that Vanessa’s childhood friend from across the street, Nina (Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester) comes home after a five-year absence and kisses David late one November night. The repercussions of their subsequent affair include grossing Vanessa out, breaking up the Walling’s marriage and ruining the happy co-dependent couple’s relationship between the Wallings and Nina’s parents, uptight Carol (Allison Janney) and kindly Terry (Oliver Platt) Ostroff. David and Terry had been “The Inseparables,” jogging partners, barbeque companions etc. but now Terry is obligated to at least try to punch out his best friend for sleeping with his daughter.
The suburban setup is very American Beauty, with a good portion of the characters confronting their delusions about their picture perfect lives. But the intent is much more to charm than to create a true sense of damage done. The Oranges is closer in spirit to Blame it on Rio than say, 1992’s Damage, where Jeremy Irons’ character destroyed his family by sleeping with his son’s girlfriend. The cast is fairly deft, even Meester and Shawkat, who might have had reason to be intimidated at the skill level around them. Platt and Janney could do these roles in their sleep. In fact, both have played similar characters in the past (the dad he played in Pieces of April was similarly well intentioned and befuddled; the woman she played in Away We Go was the more obnoxious version of Carol).
(READ: About the time Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt played a married couple in a much better movie)
But while the cast is high class, The Oranges has the tone of a middling sitcom; all the characters tend to remark on the circumstances at hand with more humor than rage or angst. “Oh good, I haven’t missed anything,” Vanessa says as she walks through her front door just as her older brother Toby (Adam Brody) is letting David know what he thinks of his affair with Nina, whom he’d been hoping to date.
Moreover, affair doesn’t seem the right word for something so resolutely unsteamy. Hugh Laurie and Leighton Meester do a fair amount of kissing and clutching, but The Oranges is a sexless movie, with nary a post-coital cuddling scene. There are bedroom scenes, but only with Nina, alone and wrapped in a sweater, staring out the window like a princess in a tower. Director Julian Farino (making his feature film debut after years directing television shows like Entourage and Big Love) keeps it all too tidy, as if he and screenwriters Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss found the David-Nina pairing as unsettling as Vanessa and the rest of the gang. Not that anyone really wants to see the naturally dour Laurie and the lively Meester rolling around in bed (my eyes!) but the lack of heat in the relationship keeps the stakes down. It’s obvious this tempest in a teapot will blow over and even be forgotten, along with this movie.
READ: TIME on the magic of Catherine Keener