Hugh Laurie stars in this indie dramedy about suburban malaise in which David Walling (Laurie) falls for the college-age daughter (Leighton Meester) of his best friend Terry Ostroff (Oliver Platt), throwing the Walling and Ostroff families, who have been the closest of friends for ages, into irreversible upheaval. Unhappy in his marriage, David’s affair with Nina only further distances him from the rest of his family, including his wife Paige (Catherine Keener), who’s already forcing him to sleep in the pool house; his daughter Vanessa (Alia Shawcat), who had been best friends with Nina in high school; and his son Toby (Adam Brody), who himself has had a thing for Nina. And needless to say, Nina’s parents Terry and Cathy (Allison Janney) don’t take too kindly to David’s betrayal.
The cast does a wonderful job of selling the emotional turmoil each character experiences as a result of the affair, painting a surprisingly clear picture of the damage David and Nina have done to their families in spite of the minimal time we’d spent with them prior to the affair. Strangely, though, the film doesn’t quite know who to side with, resulting in an overall schizophrenic approach to the narrative. Typically, a film’s overall slant toward the events depicted results from filtering those events through the lens of a protagonist, a character whose actions propel the narrative forward and who has clear desires upon which they act, thereby affecting change. However, although The Oranges opens with voice over from Shawcat’s character Vanessa, introducing the rest of the cast from her perspective, she proves not to be central to the action in any significant way. Despite the fact that Vanessa is the narrator, and therefore the character with whom we’re theoretically supposed to most closely identify with given our access to her innermost thoughts, she has probably the least screen time of the six main characters and the least amount of narrative agency.
This is where the film really stumbles, lessening the drama of narrative events by refusing to privilege any character’s perspective over another’s, even when one character is clearly right and another clearly wrong. Remaining impartial in this way makes it difficult to determine where our allegiances as viewers are meant to lie. And while this is no doubt intentional, meant to allow viewers to come to their own conclusions about the relative rightness of each character’s actions, it prevents the film from imparting any truly profound message that isn’t outright contradicted by the theme of another character’s narrative. In this, the film desperately needed a bit of streamlining. But with such terrific performances all around, especially from Laurie and Platt who indeed seem to have been friends for ages, I can see where a filmmaker may resist subordinating one character to another. Still… omelets and eggs and all that.
The Oranges is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Special features include two brief behind-the-scenes featurettes.