Vanessa Walling, narrator and one of the main characters in The Oranges (played by Alia Shawkat from Ruby Sparks and Damsels in Distress), is a recent design-school grad who fully intends to “take Manhattan by storm.” But right now she’s stuck living with her parents in a comfortable, leafy neighborhood in West Orange, New Jersey, and working in a local furniture store.
Her mother Paige (Catherine Keener) is a do-gooder square, and her father David’s (Hugh Laurie) attention is surely drifting. And now from across the street enters Nina Ostroff (Leighton Meester), Vanessa’s childhood best friend — but also her lifelong nemesis, as well as the daughter of Vanessa’s parents’ closest friends — who breezes into town to spend Thanksgiving. Vanessa is overweight, freckle-faced, and a complainer. Sunny-complexioned Nina is more of a popular hipster and world traveler. Goals that are easily attainable for Nina seem ridiculously difficult for Vanessa. Yet Vanessa is in charge of telling the story. That’s a little like making Scarlett O’Hara’s cousin Melanie the narrator of Gone with the Wind. The stage is set for a hair-pulling match, or worse.
Try “worse.” Nina appears only vaguely interested in her slacker fiancé Ethan (Sam Rosen) or Vanessa’s straight-arrow older brother Toby (Adam Brody). Instead, the girl who has everything suddenly and for unknown reasons fastens on Vanessa’s dad David that night in the basement, and the old horndog is unable to resist. One smooch and they’re ready to rearrange their lives. Uh-oh. Prepare for an especially awkward Turkey Day, with Nina and David always finding ways to sneak off and be with each other. Perhaps not surprisingly, their fling is anti-sexy, joyless, and nitpicking. They nag back and forth like a pair of bored marrieds. In other words, they’re as dull as the rest of the grownups. But once the offended parties catch on, the naughty tryst gives Vanessa, Paige, Nina’s dad Terry (Oliver Platt), and Nina’s mom Carol (Allison Janney) plenty to do in the outraged/frosty reaction department.
Vanessa gets wounded from every angle. To make matters worse, writers Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss and director Julian Farino (a British TV vet who has worked on Sex and the City) shunt the poor, unwanted young woman to the background of the scenario just as cruelly as do her parents, who loudly fawned over the neighbor’s kid Nina at their own dinner table. Vanessa can’t even be the star of her own tragedy. Awkwardly for the illicit lovers and us hopeless dopes in the audience, we never get to know the characters well enough to glimpse more than the most superficial relationships among them, so aside from Vanessa and her mother there aren’t a lot of feelings waiting around to be hurt in the first place. All the actors, particularly double-take experts Keener and Janney, have been in much better movies than this.
The Oranges, made in 2011, boils down to a fairly ordinary network-TV-style suburban lifestyle dramedy. It compares anemically, for instance, to Todd Solondz’ similarly situated Dark Horse, an overlooked near-masterpiece that played local theaters this past summer. Solondz, the Dark Prince of New Jersey Angst, has forgotten more about Garden State frustration than Farino & Co. will ever know.
“When is Nina going to get tired of this?” we ask ourselves. When is David? (Spoiler alert: At about minute 83 out of 90.) The shit does eventually hit the fan. Be patient. Until then, make sure you have an extra-gooey tub of popcorn with loads of garlic and parmesan topping to keep you company (you can save the Kleenex; it isn’t that type of movie). You’ll have earned that treat for sitting through the warmed-over holiday white meat.