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'The Oranges': Fine cast adrift in passionless indie drama

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By Robert Horton
Herald Movie Critic
Life in Orange, New Jersey, has been unfolding in the same pattern for years now: exercise routines, choir practice, the tiresome superiority of the prettier neighbor who lives across the street.
Or so it all seems to college-age Vanessa (Alia Shawkat, of "Arrested Development"), who sort of narrates "The Oranges." This indie movie shows how things are about to get a lot more complicated in this whitebread community.
Vanessa's folks (Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener) have always been best friends with their neighbors (Oliver Platt and Allison Janney) across the street. The neighbors have a daughter, Nina (Leighton Meester, from "Gossip Girl"), who used to be Vanessa's friend but is now mostly a source of resentment.
It's not giving much away to say that this cozy domestic scene masks a certain amount of quiet desperation, which erupts when Nina comes home and promptly begins an affair with Vanessa's dad. Major eww factor there.
Credit Hugh Laurie (the British actor who run on "House" made him a U.S. TV star) and Leighton Meester for making this uncomfortable pairing credible. They manage to suggest some measure of humanity in people who are doing foolish things.
Or not entirely foolish; the movie does challenge us about what's right and wrong in this situation (or maybe it's trying to justify a middle-aged affair).
"Sometimes you have to burn down the house in order to see the moon," someone observes, so the calamities spawned by this incident might have some positive outcomes even for the wronged parties.
The problem is, it's hard to care that much, because the treatment is so bland and single-note. This is a pretty impressive group of actors (and Adam Brody is also good, in a smaller role as Vanessa's brother), yet you never get the sense that these performers are being allowed to explore whatever nuances are waiting to be found in this situation.
In comparison with similar material (let's pick "The Kids Are All Right" and "Please Give" as useful yardsticks), "The Oranges" falls especially short. There's no real bite and no special perspective.
Why was this movie made? Where's the urgency or passion? When you have to ask those questions, it makes it hard to care about the ending, and I didn't.
"The Oranges" (1˝ stars)
Longtime neighbors and best friends in Orange, New Jersey, find their world upended when one father (Hugh Laurie) has an affair with the other's daughter (Leighton Meester). The film's open-minded about this, but the good cast can't find any particular urgency about the issue at hand, so it's pretty hard to care. With Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt.
Rated: R for language, subject matter.
Showing: Meridian, Sundance.
Story tags » Movies

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