Sometimes it is a good idea to go to a picture that is an obvious flopperoo, a real stinker like The Oranges, just for the sake of the insight it can give you into the workings of the typical Hollywood mindset — which in this case extends to such very talented stars as Hugh Laurie, Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, and Allison Janney, all of whom unaccountably agreed to appear in this gobbler. Who, I wonder, was the first person who thought that it would be a good idea to make a comedy about a family’s breakup? Who, then, thought it sounded a fun addition to the mix to involve another family, close friends of the first, by having breakup dad, played by Mr. Laurie, have an affair with his best friend’s twenty-something daughter, played by Leighton Meester of “Gossip Girl”? And who then persuaded a studio to finance it and the big stars to appear in it? The guy — I very much doubt that it could have been a gal — must be some kind of genius, although of an evil sort, naturally.
Dysfunctional families have been mined for comedy before, of course, but mostly under the carapace of unreality that protects “The Simpsons” or the Bluths of “Arrested Development” from the heartbreak that real families endure when this kind of thing happens. And both Homer Simpson and George Bluth, for all their faults, do manage to keep their dysfunctional families more or less together. The Oranges, named after West Orange, New Jersey, where the two families live, has nothing to put up against the emotional devastation it portrays but some feeble therapeutic platitudes about doing what makes you happy. And, we are meant to understand, even if doing what makes you happy doesn’t make you happy for very long, you’ll be happier anyway for having done it — and so will everybody else — and broken up the home in which you used to be unhappy.
Here’s Miss Meester as Nina trying out her best seduction line on Mr. Laurie’s David: “If you could lean across this table and kiss me and there were no rules, would you do it?”
After some temporizing, David replies: “If there were no rules? Sure.”
“There are no rules,” says Nina.
“Wow!” says David. “You just blew my mind.”
Not really. That last bit is not really what David said, though his behavior suggests that it or something like it what he thought. Anyway, Nina’s an immature nincompoop. There are indeed, as everyone with a mental age greater than 15 understands, rules — although admittedly Nina seems to have lived her life as if there were none that applied to her. That’s no reason for David, let alone the audience, to fall for anything so absurd. Moreover, this supposed femme fatale seems to me, though others may differ, not very pretty, not sexy at all and so far short of mature womanhood that it is hard not to see David, though he is intended to be sympathetic, as less a victim of amour fou than a predator taking advantage of an emotional if not a chronological child. Nina’s relationship with her mother, played by Miss Janney, is also that of a teenager, as she constantly acts out and defies her constantly interfering mother who tries unsuccessfully to rein her in and make her compliant by playing on apparently non-existent feelings of guilt. Guilt! She’s going to show her something to be guilty about — and then not feel guilty about it!
David also makes a bid for sympathy by letting it be known he has been going through a rough patch with his wife, Paige (Miss Keener), but we are left in the dark as to the nature of their problem, apart from the fact that David doesn’t like Paige’s obsession with leading her a capella singing group in Christmas carols. Is this a reason for him to be watching the Korean basketball league at two o’clock in the morning in his “man cave” when Nina, bored with the less than ardent attentions of his adult son, Toby (Adam Brody), now passed out from drinking too much, comes to seek him out and flirtatiously invites a kiss? The Christmas carols seem to betoken Paige’s deeper problem, whatever it may be, as once she moves out of the family home she abandons her singers to their own devices and instead finds fulfillment in a charity that gives goats to Third World families. I don’t see how that justifies her in making a scapegoat of her own.
It all comes down, as I say, to the Hollywood culture, which really is wedded to the therapeutic one, particularly in the absolute value it places on the quest for individual happiness and fulfillment and its Nina-like contempt for the rules by which people used to think themselves and their happiness were bound and limited. This merely hedonistic philosophy is occasionally dignified by reference to such fake Chinese proverbs as this: “Sometimes you have to burn your house down to see the moon.” Uh, no. I don’t think so. At no times do you have to burn your house down to see the moon. Doesn’t happen. Ever.
At one point when Paige scoffs at David’s eminently scoffable-at claim that screwing his best friend’s daughter makes him happy, he replies: “C’mon, Paige, you’re not happy either.”
“It’s not about being happy,” she tells him.
“Then what is it about?” asks David. It is apparently meant to be a devastating reply. At any rate, Paige has no answer, though most people through most of our history would have been ready enough with the comeback that “it” is about being good. The guys who are supplying us with our popular entertainments not only don’t believe that anymore, they seem to have forgotten that anyone ever did or ever could believe it. That tells you something about the state of the culture.
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