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The Oranges: Stellar cast can’t lift timid comedy

A scene from “The Oranges”

2 out of 4 stars

Title
The Oranges
Written by
Ian Helfer, Jay Reiss
Directed by
Julian Farino
Starring
Hugh Laurie, Allison Janney, Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Leighton Meester
Genre
Comedy

A comedy about a middle-aged dad who has an affair with his neighbour's daughter, The Oranges does not taste freshly squeezed.

Though the cast is first-rate, the paint-by-numbers script covers familiar American themes of midlife crisis and family dysfunction in leafy suburbia. Along with the requisite alt-rock soundtrack, there's the de rigueur sardonic voice-over narration from 24-year-old Vanessa, a frumpy-smart aspiring designer.

Vanessa (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat) fills in the backstory of her parents, David and Paige (Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener) and their best friends and across-the-street neighbours Terry (Oliver Platt) and Carol (Allison Janney).

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Back in school, Vanessa was friends with Terry and Carol's pretty daughter, Nina (Gossip Girl's Leighton Meester) before Nina reached senior high school, became popular and wild, and eventually moved away. Back at home for a post-college sojourn, Vanessa is working at a furniture store, saving money for her dream job as a designer in Manhattan.

Everything, she says, "was on track until what happened happened."

"What happened" starts with a phone call from Nina saying she isn't coming home for Thanksgiving because she's getting married to Ethan (Sam Rosen), then quickly changes her mind as the relationship collapses. When Nina arrives back home, Carol tries to set her up with David and Paige's oldest son, Toby (Adam Brody), a handsome age-appropriate aspiring diplomat who's also home for the holidays.

Instead of taking up with Toby, the rebellious Nina pushes herself at David, who she finds sitting morosely in his pool house "man cave" watching Chinese basketball on his giant screen television.

David and Nina's first tentative smooch takes place at about the 20-minute mark of the film. Family exposure of the budding relationship happens 10 minutes later. The next hour of the film deals with the consequences, most of which prove improbably benign.

Shaken out of their lethargy, each of the characters goes on a mission of self-discovery, especially Paige, who, liberated from her dull marriage, buries herself in charity work and choir practice until she runs over the neighbours' lawn ornaments in a Christmas rage.

The script does none of the cast any favours. Both Janning and Keener are variations of the same middle-aged control-freak mother. Platt as the dopey, spineless dad, seems a little overfamiliar (Pieces of April, Please Give). While Laurie is initially moderately amusing in his sputtering goggle-eyed guilt, he never seems much more than a shallow dope. Apart from her youth and prettiness, there's nothing about Meester's narcissistic Nina that makes her compelling.

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At least the tame screenplay saves us the discomfort of seeing Dr. House actually getting freaky with Gossip Girl's Blair Waldorf, though that timidity is also the film's major weakness. If you want to make a film about a transgression, at least make it more disturbing than just another "uh-oh" sitcom moment.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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