Review: Hugh Laurie and Leighton Meester headline sharp suburban comedy ‘The Oranges’

The notion of suburban malaise is nothing new, and it’s been well-mined in plenty of novels and movies and TV shows already.  Wisely, “The Oranges” is not trying to blow the lid off the notion that marriages sometimes crumble or that suburbia frequently hides secrets behind its white picket fences. 

Instead, the script by Jay Reiss and Ian Helfer is a no-apologies comedy, and it gives the large ensemble cast some juicy material to play, allowing them to really run wild.  Director Julian Farino, making his feature debut, has a great sense of character and timing, and the result is a movie that some distributor is going to make good money with, as long as they cut the right trailer.

After all, look at their cast.  You’ve got Hugh Laurie, Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, Leighton Meester, Alia Shawkat, and Adam Brody, and they’re all very good in the film.  It’s a true ensemble comedy, too.  Shawkat’s character Vanessa is the narrator of the film and the daughter of David (Laurie) and Paige (Keener).  They live across the street from their best friends, Carol (Janney) and Terry (Platt), and their kids all grew up together.  They do everything as a group, and at the start of the film, Vanessa talks about how she has two families.  She used to be just as tight with Nina, the daughter of Carol and Terry, but Nina wanted to see the world, and as soon as she could leave West Orange, New Jersey, she did, and she never looked back.  Vanessa is one of those people who wants a career and a life, but is held back by fear and inertia, and so her resentment of Nina is very specific.  It’s not just that they fell out as friends; Nina is living the life Vanessa wanted, but could never really manage.

The film really kicks into gear when Nina returns home for Thanksgiving unexpectedly.  It’s the first time in five years that she’s been back, and she’s grown up quite a bit in that time.  Her effect on David is immediate, and no matter how wrong he knows it is, he finds himself helpless to resist her.  At first, I thought we were going to watch a long, protracted “American Beauty”-style game about a guy trying to figure out his attraction to a younger woman, dancing around a taboo but never really indulging it.  Nope.  David and Nina are busted the first time they try to sneak off to a motel, and their attraction is like a hand grenade that detonates both families.  Once their secret is out in the open, instead of driving them apart, it seems to give them permission to be together.  David and Paige really are at a point where their marriage is a habit, and not one that seems to work for either one of them at all, and so David decides to chase some happiness with this younger woman, ignoring who she is and what it means to his friends and family.

The big question at the heart of the film seems to be “Is happiness reason enough?”  It’s a question I’ve contemplated, and one that I think many people face on a regular basis.  Is it right to pursue happiness no matter what the consequences?  Do we have some expectation of happiness in our lives, and is that the primary consideration in the choices we make?  As I get older, I find that the moments of pure happiness in my life are few and far between, and so I enjoy the ones that occur as fully as I can when they occur.  I know that stress and sorrow and pain and anger are part of the daily fabric, and there are so many things that are out of my control that I would rather find contentment than chase happiness.  In “The Oranges,” the pursuit of happiness is something that never seems to occur to David until Nina re-enters his life, and as soon as he starts chasing it, it becomes harder than ever to achieve.

What makes “The Oranges” feel so incredibly commercial, though, is that the film looks at these questions through the prism of broad comedy, with just enough honest observation to make it count.  This is a very funny film, and the audience I saw it with laughed so loud and so often that I missed a number of lines.  That’s a good sign.  Laurie and Platt are two of the great screen clowns right now, and it’s nice to see Laurie playing a role that allows him to really work his comedy chops.  I know “House” has made him famous in the US in a way that things like “Black Adder” never did, but I miss the Laurie that made me laugh like an idiot, and he has become really expert at mining each and every comic opportunity from material.  Platt has always been amazing at finding the laughs in something as simple as a reaction shot, and he makes Terry a really appealing presence in the film.  Janney and Keener are also old pros at this, and they find the reality in the material, making it funny but also making it count. 

For me, the real surprise in the film is Leighton Meester.  The first thing I saw her in was a small indie called “Inside,” and there was an open, approachable charm to her work there.  I haven’t seen her TV work, but it feels to me like a waste to see her chained to a teenage soap opera, and I had sort of lost track of her as a result.  She doesn’t play Nina as a simple homewrecker, and the film doesn’t place a moral judgment on her actions.  She and David genuinely find something in one another that they need at this point in time, and the film looks at the ripple effects in this two-family community, the way it affects everyone else.  Finding laughs in that material is no easy thing, and yet the film makes it seem effortless, and somehow makes even the most questionable choices seem palatable.

It’s a bright, aesthetically approachable film, and Farino’s work is light and nimble.  I would be shocked if someone doesn’t pick up “The Oranges” for a wide release.  It feels like the sort of film big distributors look for at these festivals, mainstream and filled with familiar faces, and while it’s not my favorite things I’ve seen at the festival, it may be the most accessible.