Have you ever longed for a milquetoast version of 'American Beauty' where the characters just decided to talk their issues out in a relatively congenial fashion, repeatedly spouted lines like "It's not about being happy" and Adam Brody shows up for five whole minutes?
Well, if so, your wait is at an end thanks to 'The Oranges,' a pleasant-enough, occasionally funny, but ultimately lackluster dramedy that once again drudges up the concept of suburban malaise, midlife crises, and the desire to recapture the vigor of one's youth without having anything new or unique to present.
While this film bears a striking resemblance to Sam Mendes' work, it's worth pointing out that 'American Beauty' has not aged as well as other films from that same year. The triumphant Academy Award-winner has been defanged by time; its screenplay is now seen as a mostly facile effort, and the film's bitter, cynical undercurrent, which seemed so poignant in 1999, no longer carries quite the bite it once had. And with that understanding, it becomes easier to see why this attempt, starring former 'House, M.D.' star Hugh Laurie, Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt and, ironically, Allison Janney, comes up a little short.
The comparison doesn't make 'The Oranges' a bad film, necessarily – it's still filled with nice performances, has a sweet-natured sensibility to it, and is competently made – it simply makes this endeavor by director Julian Farino and co-screenwriters Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss appear even more lukewarm than it already does on its own.
The premise is fairly straightforward: Laurie plays David Walling, a middle-aged man who finds himself stuck in a marriage to his wife Paige (Catherine Keener), where things haven't been "right" for quite some time. The Wallings are abnormally close with their neighbors from across the street, Terry and Carol Ostroff (Oliver Platt and Allison Janney, respectively), with whom they enjoy weekly dinners, casual jogs in the morning, and various other neighborly activities. Added to the mix are the Wallings' two children, Vanessa (played by 'Arrested Development' co-star Alia Shawkat) and Toby (played by the aforementioned and out-of-place Adam Brody), while the Ostroffs have one child, Nina (played by Minka Kelly doppelganger, Leighton Meester).
Though the story is built to be an ensemble, it focuses primarily on the destructive nature of David's relationship with Nina by zeroing in on the beginning of their sudden bond rather than the dissolution of David's marriage, which is an interesting sidestep that eventually finds its way to the more conventional route. And to the film's credit, though she's definitely mercurial, adorable, and effervescent, the film stops just short of Nina being a full-fledged, card-carrying member of the magic pixie dream girl brigade. Instead, 'The Oranges' does its best to make her something of a younger, female analog to David – i.e., she's lost, slightly disenchanted and finding herself at a crossroads of sorts.
While that description makes it sound as though 'The Oranges' would be rife with dramatic and comedic possibilities, sadly, the film simply doesn't come together that way. For starters, despite being an ensemble, and centering on Laurie and Meester much of the time, the plot is introduced and occasionally advanced via voice-over by Alia Shawkat. This fact confounds, as it would seem likely that Shawkat's character might play a more prominent role. Instead, the film flirts with the notion that Vanessa – a recent college grad and unemployed designer – may actually be concealing her jealousy of the experiences everyone else is having by appearing to act either apathetic or disapproving. In a way, the plot briefly suggests she's the one in the suburban malaise, and she's only 24.
Unfortunately, that plotline is never really developed; it's just there to add some surface-level depth, in the same vein as the Ostroff's lack of sexual chemistry or Paige's obsession with Christmas and the subsequent appearance of Tim Guinee – who takes a break from being dead on 'Revolution' and working for the DoD in 'Homeland' to become Catherine Keener's potential new love interest.
And while the film rests on the foundation of Nina being with David, and all the questions about the difference in their age and the long-term prospects of their relationship, 'The Oranges' ultimately falters because it's overstuffed with underdeveloped subplots and characters who are perfectly charming, but, other than Laurie and Meester, seem to have little chemistry between them. Perhaps this is an intentional example of their suburban dissatisfaction (in which case I applaud the filmmakers) but the suggestion is buried too deeply (if it's there at all) and besides, there is just not enough context to make these relationships have much meaning.
By the time the third act gets underway, the whole thing really starts to drag. The movie has a sort of manic sensibility that's not entirely dissimilar from what the characters are going through – in that the vibrancy and zest of the beginning swiftly transitions into a plodding climax that offers brief calamity and hackneyed resolution disguised as poignancy.
'The Oranges' never manages to rise to the heights it likely thought possible, considering the talent of the cast and the ever-popular discussion of the suburban upper-middle class in crisis. But it doesn’t sink into the realm of dreadful filmmaking either. It's a middle-of-the-road film that gets by on pleasantness, but doesn't leave much of a lasting impression.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Oranges' comes from Fox as a 2-disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy that comes in the standard 2-disc keepcase. As with other releases from the studio, the disc will auto play a series of preview before taking you to the top menu.
'The Oranges' comes with a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer that tends to look too soft most of the time and therefore loses a degree of detail that otherwise would have made the film look great throughout. Overall, the picture is fine; it is bright and handles colors quite well, rendering everything in the same even-toned palate that is very lifelike and consistent. Additionally, contrast levels are quite reliable, as blacks are deep and rich and the whites (especially in the exterior scenes) are bright and convey the season well, but never feel blown out or too intense.
The only real problem with 'The Oranges' transfer is that the film occasionally lacks the high definition edge, which is strange for a film that was shot not long ago. And while it doesn't necessarily mar the picture in any way – close-ups still present a gratifying amount of fine detail – there's an extra element that's missing from wider shots, or from general elements like textures on clothing or backgrounds that keeps the image from earning more glowing praise.
Thankfully, this is not the kind of film that will be judged too harshly for the way it looks. 'The Oranges' is competently shot, but it doesn’t rely on any flashy cinematography, filters or much design work; it is a straightforward film presented as such. And so, while the transfer here could have been taken up a notch, the lack of fine detail and occasional soft focus isn't necessarily a deal breaker.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track provides a very nice listening experience that highlights the film's most important aspects – the dialogue and the music – while affording certain other atmospheric elements the chance to shine when called upon to do so. Obviously, 'The Oranges' isn't going to be using a lot of bombastic sound design to get its tale of improper romance across, but the film does have a few instances where certain surround elements and LFE come into play (mostly for laughs), and those are handled with aplomb.
Ultimately, though, this is a very dialogue heavy film, which relies on the mix to provide balance and to blend the actors with ambient noise and the occasional musical riff or selection from the soundtrack without either element overwhelming the other, or becoming lost in a mishmash of noises. In this case, the mix manages to favor the dialogue by pushing it through the center channel and occasionally through the rear channels to allow for some surround elements to come through. Meanwhile, the music and other sound effects come through cleanly on the front channel speakers, making for an impressive, but unobtrusive listening experience.
'The Oranges' isn't a bad movie; it merely suffers from the been-there-done-that syndrome that plagues the countless other films attempting to pull back the curtain on the supposed suburban idyll by introducing too many elements that are now considered cliché or otherwise contrived. The film has an outstanding cast, and had it utilized them more evenly, the story might not have felt so lopsided and eventually run out of steam as it did in the third act. Still, there's nothing really awful about the movie; it's just disappointing, considering the talent involved. And while the image is good, but not great, the sound comes through crystal clear. This one doesn't require that you check it out, but give it a rent if you're stuck for something to watch.