There’s more talent in “The Oranges” than a mild comedy of suburban infidelity knows how to handle. If you’re a filmmaker lucky enough to get a cast that includes Hugh Laurie of “House,” Catherine Keener, Allison Janney, and Oliver Platt, not to mention young actresses like Alia Shawkat and Leighton Meester (“Gossip Girl”), you’d better give them something to do. And director Julian Farino does — barely.
The title refers to the cluster of townships in New Jersey that all have “Orange” in their names; on one quiet street in West Orange, across from each other, live the Wallings and the Ostroffs. They’re best friends and empty nesters in theory, even though Vanessa Walling (Shawkat) lives in post-college limbo at home with mom Paige (Keener) and dad David (Laurie), passive-aggressively stalling her dreams of Manhattan.
The Ostroffs, Carol (Janney) and Terry (Platt), have a daughter, too — Nina (Meester), a beautiful, brittle swan to Vanessa’s ugly duckling — but she hasn’t been home in years. Until she reappears on their doorstep at Thanksgiving, having broken up with her hipster boyfriend (Sam Rosen), and promptly begins an affair with David.
Imagine “The Graduate” with the genders reversed and none of the cultural issues at stake. “The Oranges” is a pleasant little farce that never works up enough steam and that undercuts its players with thin writing and characterizations. Part of the problem is that it’s an ensemble comedy that cries out for a center, and Shawkat’s Vanessa, who narrates, is too much of an underwritten fifth wheel to serve that function.
Another distraction is characters who struggle to rise above their types. Paige is a Stepford wife who lives for her Christmas choir, Carol’s a meddling control freak, Terry’s a gadget nerd, and so forth. The intended drama in “The Oranges” is in watching these small, likable people break free of ruts as they grapple with David and Nina’s May-November romance, and it works in fits and starts. But you can tell that director Farino and writers Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss come from TV in the way they lean on character shorthand rather than observed behavior. The grace notes, and they’re there, come from the actors rather than the script.
Because Laurie has the least predictable part (and because he’s really good), David is the most interesting person here: A cautious man jumping from the moving car of his life. The scenes between David and Nina are awkwardly touching, and the movie never plays their relationship for a dirty joke. Maybe “The Oranges” does represent a middle-age male fantasy, but Laurie lets you see its pitfalls as well as its pleasures.
Contrast the movie with the fractious outer-borough comedies of Raymond De Felitta (“City Island,” “Two Family House”), and you sense what’s missing: Familiar characters freshly seen and a restless filmmaking energy that renders them both ridiculous and human. “The Oranges” risks less and achieves less, but at least it’s nice. It’ll go down like comfort food when you see it on TV in a few months.