By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features Film Critic
Rolling into theaters more than a year after a 2011 festival screening, “The Oranges” is so unappealing and flavorless it should have stayed on the shelf. What’s supposed to be a naughty dramedy about an awkward affair between a middle-aged bore and a much younger free spirit is surprisingly flat and disappointingly juiceless.
The odd thing about the couple’s complete lack of chemistry is that stars Leighton Meester (“Gossip Girl”) and Hugh Laurie played similar roles much more believably on Laurie’s “House MD” TV series. Two 2006 episodes featured Meester as a 17-year-old who was hot for House, until the doctor discovered that an inhibitions-eradicating spore was causing her inappropriate interest. Their few scenes together were not the main plot of either episode, but those brief TV moments were sexier, more interesting and edgier than anything in this seemingly endless slog.
“The Oranges” is a thematic retread of 1984’s “Blame It on Rio,” except without an underage object of desire, an exotic setting or anywhere near as much fun. Both movies feature mid-life best-friend fathers, one of whom falls for the very willing daughter of the other. In both movies, the transgressing dad has a disapproving daughter of his own who is the same age as his new paramour. And in both movies, things become exceedingly uncomfortable between the two formerly close families when the truth gets out.
“The Oranges” transplants the plot from beautifully sunny Brazil to a miserably gray New Jersey November and December. (The title derives from the fact that both families live on Orange Drive in West Orange.) Michael Caine was amusingly nervous, self-deludingly reluctant yet entertainingly powerless to resist the charms of his jailbait temptress in “Blame It on Rio.” Laurie, however, seems so catatonically disinterested as David in Meester’s 20-something Nina that their hook-up seems mechanical. It’s equally hard to figure out why Nina wants David. The usual reasons—acting out, defying her parents, slutty nymphomania—don’t seem to apply. Instead, we’re supposed to accept that the two sincerely and legitimately fall in love. This is despite the fact that everything we know about Nina’s irresponsible wild-child persona up to that point contradicts the notion that she would have any desire whatsoever to settle down with a bald-spotted homebody twice her age.
A huge storytelling flaw is that the movie’s viewpoint character is David’s resentfully bitter daughter Vanessa (“Arrested Development”‘s Alia Shawkat). Jealous of the more attractive and confident Nina since childhood, Vanessa is so grumblingly obnoxious it’s hard to empathize with her.
The normally excellent Catherine Keener can’t do much with the role of David’s brittle wife Paige, whose obsession with a Christmas caroling group is as forced and unfunny as the vehicular violence she visits on David’s Christmas decorations. Oliver Platt is lifelessly lost as Nina’s passive papa, but Allison Janney manages to get off a good sex-related zinger as Nina’s thoroughly disgusted mom. Adam Brody has a small part as Vanessa’s brother, who is shocked to discover he has been competing with his own father for Nina’s affections.
The movie’s most unfortunate character is Nina’s cheating ex-fiancé Ethan (Sam Rosen), a lip-pierced slacker stereotype whose annoying attempts to get Nina back are a cross between “Say Anything” and stalking.
It’s no surprise that the sour and ironically colorless “The Oranges” is not being released closer to the movie’s Thanksgiving-to-Christmas time period. This forbidden-fruit fiasco may be the most unpleasant holiday-minded misfire since 2004’s “Surviving Christmas.”