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‘The Oranges’ an uneven family comedy

“The Oranges” takes its title from West Orange, N.J., the suburban town that serves as the movie’s setting. In this quiet community, two families, the Ostroffs and the Wallings, are next-door neighbors and lifelong friends.

The Walling family consists of David and Paige (Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener), a less than happily married couple, and their two 20-something kids, Toby and Vanessa (Adam Brody and Alia Shawkat).

The Ostroffs comprise of Terry (Oliver Platt), Carol (Allison Janney) and their rebellious daughter Nina (Leighton Meester), who has returned home for Thanksgiving after a messy breakup. As Nina is newly single and Toby is roughly her age, Carol nudges her daughter to start a relationship with him. Little does she know that Nina is in love with
Toby’s father, and the two of them are involved in an affair.

The cast does an excellent job of bringing the Ostroffs and Wallings to life. Laurie and Meester show exceptional skill in conveying the charm of characters who could
easily be perceived as the bad guys. Platt and Janney supply most of the film’s humor and warmth, especially in a hilarious scene when Janney’s character learns about her daughter’s affair.

Unfortunately, Brody and Shawkat are less impressive. While they do not perform their characters poorly, the actors simply reprise roles from their past. Brody is once again the bumbling nerd he portrayed on “The O.C.,” and Shawkat’s character is strikingly similar to the cynical hipster she played in “Whip It.” They deliver exactly what viewers expect from them, and thus their presence feels unnecessary.

It’s a shame that both characters are so inconsequential, especially since Vanessa is the film’s narrator, providing the story’s framework at the beginning of the film and ushering us out at the end. In between, however, she fades into the background. There is a flimsy subplot about her aspirations to become a furniture designer, but it fails to draw much attention or elicit much sympathy. Most of Vanessa’s screen time is spent merely shooting snarky comments at Nina.

A central issue that plagues the film is the way in which Nina and Vanessa grow as characters. Rather than discovering their flaws through their actions, Nina and Vanessa are blatantly told what is wrong with them by other characters. Although these one-dimensional conversations happen frequently in real life, they come off as poorly executed on screen. It is for this reason that, while the talented cast and intriguing premise make “The Oranges” an entertaining way to spend two hours, it doesn’t really warrant a second viewing.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Oct. 4 print edition. Suzanne Egan is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]

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‘The Oranges’ an uneven family comedy