Setting a film in the pristine front yard of American suburbia is always going to cast shadows of 'Blue Velvet' and 'The Stepford Wives', but Julian Farrino’s 'The Oranges' aims for less gruesome subversions. Out on DVD this week, it presents the tribulations of two neighbouring families mired in the quiet discontent of middle-class drudgery as the daughter of the Ostroff clan is received home from a long and self-searching spin round the globe.
Nina Ostroff’s (Leighton Meester) return explicates the well-worn dysfunction of the two households until her sudden and outrageous affair with the patriarch of the Wallings family, David (Hugh Laurie), explodes the lifestyle-template they’ve grudgingly followed. The rapport between Laurie and Meester was evident in her recurring episodes in 'House', and it helps carry an on-screen romance that would otherwise appear too broadly drawn, while Farino’s directing and cast remain unobtrusive and workmanlike.
'The Oranges' wasn’t the first film to give us a predictable domestic scandal that forces its characters from routine to self-discovery, in fact it wasn’t even the first that year: the pins are set up in an alignment similar to Niall MacCormick’s 'Albatross', but knocked down here with less overt enthusiasm.
'The Oranges' might be the only one, however, to undermine its few decent jokes and serviceable ensemble acting with a narration that’s not only entirely unnecessary but gives us the unwanted opinions of the only character that doesn’t matter and who shows no sign of an arc until the final five minutes, the Wallings’ daughter, Vanessa (Alia Shawkat).
Presented as our protagonist and played as a teenage cliché-cocktail of one part selfish angst to two parts delusion of relevance, you could lift Vanessa and her turgid voiceover straight out of the film and lose nothing of the plot or the drama. Vanessa’s interludes are presumably an attempt to illustrate the fallout of the affair on the blank slate of an innocent member of the family. But that slate is so blank, so tedious, that it’s difficult to feel anything but bored by her.
As long as you don’t let Vanessa intrude upon your notice, the film is funny and well-observed, even if the observation has been made a hundred times before. 'The Oranges'’ effort to throw off the suburban surrender of unambitious lives is an 'American Beauty' that never fully commits, but even if it’s without inspiration it’s still not without some colour.
'The Oranges' was released on DVD this week and is available to purchase from amazon.co.uk.