At first glance, the great revelation of Julian Farino’s The Oranges is that the (white) suburbs are still a powder keg, ready to explode at the very first lawn-care infraction. The men like gadgets, television, and beer a lot (and I mean, a lot), and the women like nothing more than gossiping and hoping that their daughters will marry the right kind of boy. And when, in the case of the central crux of the story, an older man begins a consensual romantic relationship with the post-collegiate daughter of his best buddy, you might as well get the gas masks, flashlights, and canned raviolis because the end is nigh.
In fairness, the community that surrounds the two families at war in the film is of only marginal interest to the filmmakers. Most of the drama revolves around David and Paige Walling (Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener) and Carol and Terry Ostoroff (Allison Janney and Oliver Platt), a pair of married couples and best friends who do everything together. To ensure the future of this close-knit relationship, Carol wants her daughter, Nina (Leighton Meester), to take an interest in (read: eventually marry) Paige and David’s son, Toby (Adam Brody). Thus, when she learns that Nina, after dumping her fiancée (Sam Rosen), has started a serious relationship with David, whose marriage has been on the rocks for some time, she quite literally vomits from shock.
The plot, though staggeringly familiar, is rife with potential, but The Oranges exudes an unmistakable, odious attitude of feigned trendiness, bawdiness, and wisdom from the start. It’s like seeing your sleazy uncle at a Bon Iver show, dressed up and talking to college girls. As much as the dialogue in the film voices an attitude of self-liberation and champions the positives of severing accepted social constraints, it seems to be constantly taking one step forward and two steps back. David and Nina say they’re in love and that they’re in a serious relationship, but Farino and his cast fail to even suggest the basic physical desire that they both must have. And even if this is the first relationship in the history of living beings to not have anything to do with physical desire whatsoever, the dialogue and structure of the script glides over what they might find cerebrally or emotionally engaging about each other without even the whisper of personal detail or wit.
Now, yes, Carol berating her daughter about David’s “old balls” is an image that’s hard not to be delighted by, but it’s merely a finely calibrated distraction, one of several meant to disguise the fact that the filmmakers have no interest in either shitting or getting off the pot. The central conflict is a question of moral hierarchy: Is David better for being willing to engage in a relationship that feels right to him but is socially catastrophic, or is he just a fool for youth and (assumed) lust? The answer afforded is, perhaps inevitably, both, kind of. But The Oranges offers no sense of what brought Nina and David to the decisions they make, and the consequences of their actions are relatively minor in the long run. They’re ostracized to a very minor degree and anger their respective families, but none of the film’s creators seem interested in showing a set of varied or complex reactions to the relationship. Most of the characters are barely more than a cynical sketch of misguided suburban creatures and there’s no sense of empathy from the filmmaker or the writers.
So, ultimately, The Oranges is a wasteful study of the white and privileged with their neck hair standing on end. Told like a family story to a drunk boyfriend by David and Paige’s daughter, Vanessa (an underutilized Alia Shawkat), in voiceover, the narrative doesn’t turn a critical or satirical eye on the actions and reactions of the characters involved, leaving them adrift in a narrative limbo between false righteousness and humor. As earnestly as Helfer and Reiss’s script insists that what’s happening is controversial, interesting, and maybe even tawdry, Farino frames and conveys all the supposed wild emotions at play and ensuing fuss with all the excitement of a regional furniture catalogue. The disappointment is so heavy on all levels in The Oranges exactly because the central conflict is at once simple and provocative, the perfect place for a filmmaker to explore a variety of thematic and visual curiosities. Devoid of sex, art, imagination, community, or genuine consequence, however, the film instead sells the same core idea as most real estate agents: the suburbs are exciting enough.