When a prodigal daughter returns home and and takes up with a neighbor’s husband — the couple are her parents’ best friends to boot — you can go in many directions with that scenario. But not to sitcom land.
Writers Ian Helfer & Jay Reiss are content with the awkward situations and Christmas holiday disruptions this affair causes, while remaining oblivious to the pain.
A black comedy can get away situational comedy since everyone is an exaggerated fictional being. Such literary creations feel little pain.
Noel Coward even made emotional pain funny in his best theatrical comedy, “Private Lives,” an examination of lovers who can neither live with nor without one another, which he disguised with sophisticated flippancy.
But “The Oranges” wants to play nice. It wants no one really to pay for betrayal, for reactions to be “comic” rather than sincere and for a philandering husband to be justified in his behavior.
Toward that end, all the adult women are absolute shrews. (I’m not considering the prodigal daughter an adult since she never acts like one.) Need I mention the writers and director are all male?
The suburbs are, in American movies again, places where souls go to die. No one has time for authenticity; everyone is too busy shopping or making money or performing good deeds.
Do any filmmakers actually live in the suburbs? They must. Is this what they see when they walk out their doors?
The Wallings and Ostroffs are neighbors and best friends on Orange Drive in suburban New Jersey. You know this because a) Vanessa Walling (Alia Shawkat, pictured left), the film’s narrator, tells you so, and b) David Walling (Hugh Laurie) and Terry Ostroff (Oliver Platt) go jogging together three times a week.
Never mind that tubby Terry couldn’t possibly keep up with lean and restless David. Or that about the only thing Paige Walling (Catherine Keener) and Cathy Ostroff (Allison Janney) could possibly share is a disdain for their husbands.
In other words, the pictures director Julian Farino and his writers paint are family portraits where someone seriously needs to take a knife to the canvases.
Enter Nina the knife (Leighton Meester), the Ostroff’s trouble-making daughter.
On the rebound from a cheating fiancée back in San Fran, she takes a look around the despised suburb she abandoned five years before and the only thing she likes is David.
Since her mom is so distrustful she follows her around town like a cheap detective, the “affair” has no chance to take off before all hell breaks loose.
Paige immediately moves out of the Walling house to a local B&B, which is what she’s been longing to do forever. Vanessa now has a good reason to hate her former best girlfriend, which she actually started doing a half-decade prior.
Nina is distressed at all the harm she’s caused, which is exactly the way she likes things. And David decides if he’s going to feel all guilty and stuff, he might as well go ahead and have the damn affair.
So really everyone is happy. Which might have been the starting place for black comedy only the movie won’t let its characters be happy. It’s not “normal.”
In the movie suburbs, these things must cause a lot of fuss and feathers. And the comedy that ensues is just that — feathery.
The actors don’t seem to know what they’re meant to play. The talented actresses are wasted in these roles. I’d like to ask why they are doing such drivel but then I know perfectly well why — it’s what they got offered. You want to work, don’t you?
Platt has been doing suburban husbands for so long that he does actually appear to be doing this one in his sleep. His eyes are open but he doesn’t fool me.
Laurie looks stiff and awkward. How seriously is he supposed to take this May-December romance? And where’s the comedy? Remember, he originally came out of roughhouse British TV comedies such as “Blackadder.”
Meester — most recently the Bridezilla in “That’s My Boy” so she runs a danger of typecasting — gets to look cute and dangerous all at once, which may be okay for her career.
But Shawkat would be superfluous if she weren’t the narrator. She is there to bear witness to the farce that never quite achieves that status.
She tells you how she — you — should feel about all this. And to make the occasional wisecrack when nothing else seems or acts funny.
Everything gets put back together before New Year’s. Too bad. An American movie suburb stood on its head might have been entertaining. Or someone grabbing a real knife might have been thrilling.
The only real eruption on Orange Drive occurs when Keener angrily runs down Christmas lawn ornaments with her car. Pretty weak.
Opens: October 5, 2012 (Art Takes Over)
Production companies: An Olympus Pictures/Likely Story production
Cast: Hugh Laurie, Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, Leighton Meester, Alia Shawkat, Adam Brody
Director: Julian Farino
Screenwriters: Jay Reiss, Ian Helfer
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Leslie Urdang, Dean Vanech
Executive producers: Ian Hefler, Jay Reiss, Stepanie Azpiazu, Sam Hoffman, Dan Revers
Director of photography: Steven Fierberg
Production designer: Dan Davis
Music: Klaus Badelt, Andrew Raiher
Costume designer: David Robinson
Editors: Jeffrey M. Werner, Carole Kravetz Aykanian
R rating, 90 minutes