The downside to how good television has become over the past decade is that it’s made some otherwise perfectly fine indie movies seem diminished by comparison. The Oranges, directed by regular Entourage/How To Make It In America helmer Julian Farino, and written by Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss, is the kind of open-ended, character-driven light melodrama that might’ve been better served as an HBO series. Leighton Meester stars as the spoiled, rebellious daughter of an upper-middle-class West Orange, New Jersey family who returns home for Thanksgiving and launches an affair with her dad’s best friend and neighbor, Hugh Laurie. The film is narrated by Laurie’s daughter, Alia Shawkat, who used to be Meester’s best friend, until they went their separate ways in high school. Though only 90 minutes long, The Oranges is brimming with backstory and specific character details: Laurie’s wife, Catherine Keener, has a Christmas caroling troupe that she leads with an iron fist; Meester’s dad, Oliver Platt, is a gadget-obsessed dork who claims he helped invent Ultimate Frisbee; Shawkat is a furniture designer who talks about moving to New York but never follows through; and so on.
The Oranges cast (which also includes Allison Janney as Meester’s mother and Adam Brody as Shawkat’s brother) is terrific, and the movie takes its own premise seriously, considering what would actually happen to two families like this if a cross-generational relationship sprung up. The lingering resentment between Meester and Shawkat comes to the surface, Keener pours herself into charity work, Platt looks for ways to recapture his youth, and everyone involved adjusts their lives to this new reality, continuing to see everything that happens in terms of what it means to their own happiness. The Oranges gets across how the problems with these characters began long before Laurie and Meester succumbed to their hormones.
But there’s too much movie here for the space allotted. By the time Meester’s ex-boyfriend shows up, and Keener gets drunk and starts smashing Christmas decorations, The Oranges has long since become directionless, with each new plot point coming off as rushed and incidental. Hobbling the film further: the blandly explanatory narration, the generically bouncy/twangy Amerindie soundtrack, and the wannabe-edgy sex jokes. Overall, The Oranges appears to have been forcibly wrested into a conventional indie-dramedy package, rather than finding the length, style, structure, and perhaps medium that would best suit it.