It is almost that time again. That time of the year when movie studios bank on sentimental home-for-the-holiday films that remind moviegoers that the holidays should be shared with family, even if the families are off-kilter or dysfunctional.
Jodie Foster’s 1995 Home for the Holidays examined family dysfunction seen through the prism of unfulfilled dreams and family expectations. While The Family Stone (2005) follows the quirks and misadventures of a Connecticut family when a favorite son (Delmot Mulroney) brings home his uptight girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) for Christmas with the intention of proposing to her during the holidays.
The Oranges is primarily in the same vein as most holiday comedy films. However, screenwriters Jay Reiss and Ian Helfer have employed some classic elements from theatre to push the plot along and cause various characters in the film to re-examine their lives.
Set in a New Jersey suburb, the Ostroff and Walling families have been neighbors and friends for several decades. The fathers (Oliver Pratt and Hugh Laurie) jog together every morning. Vanessa Walling (Alia Shawkat) and Nina Ostoff (Leighton Meester) have been friends since elementary school. And both families share joint holidays.
While both families live in a state of supposed suburban bliss, under the surface there is discontent and middle-class malaise. Enter free spirited Nina who has returned home for Thanksgiving after the demise of her engagement to slacker boyfriend Ethan (Sam Rosen). Nina conjures up submerged resentment from childhood friend Vanessa and overall mixes up everything and causes chaos and upheaval with both families.
The Oranges, like other holiday films of its ilk, causes us to look at family relationship and societal veneers more closely. But unlike The Family Stone and perhaps even Home for the Holidays, The Oranges delves deeper into the artifice of suburban bliss and our quest for purpose, happiness, and independence. Helfer and Reiss, through the character of Nina, brilliantly employs the Pan/trickster archetype, spreading chaos and disorder, which can ultimately lead to resolution and wisdom. (Consider Danny Glover’s character in To Sleep with Anger.) “For me the power of the film lies in its illustration of how people come together because they each need something real and valuable from the other person in order to move forward. And in the idea that sometimes the most disastrous things turn out to be exactly what we need to wake up to our lives,” details producer Leslie Urdang.
This strong ensemble cast injects humor and pathos into a film that has very well-thought out characterizations and an excellent script. Oliver Platt as the suburban corporate dad who mostly finds enjoyment in new gadgets brings his incredible comedic talent mixed with middle-class melancholy. Hugh Laurie as the confused, co-conspirator with Nina perfectly combines pensive reflection with male menopause turbulence. As the moms, Allison Janney and Catherine Keener are appropriately maternal, funny, and wildly reactive.
Leighton Meester as Nina expertly melds her character’s wanderlust tendencies with a quiet reserve. And as the narrating protagonist, Alia Shawkat appropriately mixes post-college angst and listlessness with heartfelt vulnerability.
For those moviegoers looking for a different type of comedic holiday film, The Oranges will definitely fit the bill. And true to life, no holiday get together is without its blunders and closet skeletons and The Oranges has plenty to spare. Peel back the skin and The Oranges is ripe, succulent, and surprising!!
The Oranges stars Hugh Laurie, Leighton Meester, Alia Shawkat, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, Catherine Keener, and Adam Brody and opens in select theaters October 5, 2012.
—William S. Gooch