Set in the titular suburbs of North Jersey,
announces its theme in Alia Shawkat's opening voice-over: "The question of happiness has preoccupied philosophers, poets, and pharmaceutical companies for thousands of years," she says. "It's a tricky one."
It is, indeed. And while The Oranges - from a crisp and clever screenplay by Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss, but directed less cleverly by Julian Farino - explores the definition of happiness, it does so without much profundity. Quick and snappy, this comedic look at the miserableness of two married couples stars West Wing veterans Oliver Platt and Allison Janney as Terry and Carol Ostroff, and Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener as David and Paige Walling.
They are best friends all. The Ostroffs' daughter, Nina (Leighton Meester), and the Wallings', Vanessa (Shawkat), were likewise close - until Nina started hanging with the cool kids in school and stole away Vanessa's secret crush.
As The Oranges begins, Nina has returned home for Thanksgiving, having just broken off an engagement - her fiance (Sam Rosen) was caught in flagrante. Looking for her parents, she wanders across the street to the Wallings', and David opens the door. It's clear right there that the middle-aged ad exec and the girl who could be his daughter - and used to be best friends with his daughter - have a thing for each other.
That thing develops - a thwarted motel-room assignation, an Atlantic City weekend - and throws the whole universe out of whack. Keener's character is crushed, and quits the house for a B&B. Terry and Carol, whose marriage had settled into dull routine, are angry and agog - at their daughter, at David, at each other.
And Vanessa is simply disgusted by what her father has done.
David and Nina blithely pursue their May-September romance, but we all know it won't work, don't we? Laurie and Meester - who had a similar fling on episodes of House - display an easy rapport, but one of the problems with Farino's film is its TV-ness. Blocked and shot like a sitcom, with actors steeped in series television (in addition to House and West Wing, the cast's credits include Arrested Development and Gossip Girl) and a director responsible for seasons of HBO's Entourage, The Oranges displays an air of efficient economy. Nothing is messy, no beat too long, the actors hit their marks.
And by the time Christmas Eve comes around and Keener's Paige steers her car into the giant holiday light display on her husband's front lawn, even this symbolically defiant and reckless act feels forced and phony.
The Oranges **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Julian Farino. With Hugh Laurie, Leighton Meester, Allison Janney, Oliver Platt, and Catherine Keener. Distributed by ATO Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz East and Rave Motion Pictures/NJ.EndText