A great cast can be a powerful weapon. In the case of the new family dramedy The Oranges it's the saving grace.
The formula for a quirky suburban dissection is on full display in the feature from TV veteran Julian Farino and first-time writers Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss which follows two best friend couples Terry and Carol Ostroff (Oliver Platt and Allison Janney) and David and Paige Walling (Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener) whose BFF relationship implodes when David strikes up a romance with the Ostroff's daughter Nina (Leighton Meester). The scandalous affair lights a fire under the well-to-do New Jersey families and when David realizes that his connection with Nina is deeper than just a one night stand their white picket fence lives completely crack.
Even with a divisive subject matter (to follow love or to stick with family?) The Oranges floats by without much edge. David and Nina's romance begins with passion but is entirely void of sexual fire. As it evolves they become complacent and boring — everything David hated about his first marriage. That would be a great twist but The Oranges isn't satire. The conflict comes with the scowling world around the unlikely pair the Ostroff's distraught over their daughter's choices Paige off exploring other options for her own now-single life and David's daughter Vanessa (Alia Shawkat) juggling her own aimless path as a furniture designer. For a risky life choice David and Nina's decision to declare their love for one another doesn't come with many repercussions even in the "squeaky clean" land of Jersey.
But the cast turns The Oranges into one to watch. Laurie has a life beyond the uptight Dr. House playing David as a compassionate conflicted acceptedly selfish man. It's easy to see why he falls for Meester's Nina who isn't simply a 20-something with an interest in older guys. They both see qualities in each other that are apparent to the audience and they play it with energy not present in the material. There's a been-there-done-that feeling to Platt and Janney in The Oranges but only because they're continually perfect as the hilarious overbearing parents. Sadly Keener goes to waste; another indie vet she spends most of the time of screen until one momentous outburst that arrives without build up.
Farino adeptly directs The Oranges and avoids the eye-rolling tropes that go hand and hand with movies of this nature (I'm looking at you head-on shots featuring Linus-like characters moping about). He knows how to let his actors play and when you have a man like Laurie in the lead that's a must. The movie never peels back the rhine to find something new to say about the 'burbs but with great actors in tow The Oranges rises above the lookalikes.
The man-child: a staple character for modern comedy and notoriously known for being played one-note. They get the laugh they get out.
But turning the lovable goofball or zoned-out knucklehead into something more is no easy task—which makes Paul Rudd's work in Our Idiot Brother that much more impressive. Rudd's Earth-friendly farmer Ned (the closest thing to a new Lebowski we've seen since the original) finds himself down on his luck after being entrapped by a police officer looking for pot. After a stint in jail he abandons his rural hippie commune for the big city to take shelter with his three sisters. Unfortunately for Ned his three siblings Liz (Emily Mortimer) Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) and Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) are as equally displaced and confused from the ebb and flow of life—albeit with severely different perspectives of the world.
Liz struggles to put her kid in private school and keep her marriage to documentary filmmaker/scumbag Dylan (Steve Coogan) intact. Miranda claws her way to the top of Vanity Fair's editorial staff and shuns her flirtatious neighbor (Adam Scott). Natalie stresses over her commitment issues with girlfriend Cindy (Rashida Jones) leaving little time or patience for Ned's bumbling antics. Sound like a lot of plot? While the manic lives of Ned's sisters click symbolically with his journey to get back on his feet it makes for one sporadic narrative.
Like a series of vignettes Our Idiot Brother never gels but when director Jesse Peretz finds a moment of unadulterated Nedisms to throw up on screen the movie hits big. Whether it's Ned teaching his nephew how to fight accidentally romancing his sister's interview subject or infiltrating his ex-girlfriend's house to steal his dog Willie Nelson the movie relies heavily on Ned's antics and its smart to do so. But thin throughlines for its supporting don't hold a candle to Rudd doing his thing.
And its a testament to Rudd's versatility—the man has done everything from Shakespeare and raunchy Judd Apatow comedies after all—that makes the movie watchable. Rudd gives dimensionality to his nincompoop character allowing darker emotions to creep in when necessary. There's a point in the film when Ned gives up fighting for his type-A sisters' affection and it's some of the best material Rudd's ever delivered. But like one of Ned's lit joints Our Idiot Brother can quickly fizzle out leading to plodding plot twists and sentimental conclusions. Mortimer Banks and Deschanel are great actresses—here they drift through their scenes and come out in the end changed. Because they have to.
Our Idiot Brother tries to take the Apatow model to the indie scene and comes through with so-so results. Only Rudd's able to find something to latch on to to build upon to warm up to. In an unexpected twist it's the man-child who seems the most grown up.
Cooked up in the head of Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) comes the movie in which he makes his directorial debut. Without Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze sifting through the maze this time Kaufman himself weaves this crazy quilt with consummate skill. In other words Synecdoche New York is just as successfully quirky humane and head scratching as all the others in the Kaufman ouerve. To sum up the plot succinctly is impossible but it centers on a stage director and hypochondriac Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who trades in his suburban life with wife Adele (Catherine Keener) daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) and regional theatrical work in Schenectady for a chance at Broadway. He puts together a cast (resembling those in his own dream world) and brings them to a Manhattan warehouse being designed as a replica of the city outside. As the world he is creating inside these walls expands so does the focus of his own life and relationships. As the years literally fly by he gets deeper into his theatrical self which soon starts to merge with his own increasingly pathetic reality. Whatever you make of the tale Kaufman is telling here the casting could not be better or more suited to the quirky material. Philip Seymour Hoffman offers up a tour-de-force and is simply superb playing all the tics and foibles of the deeply disturbed Caden. His early scenes in his “normal” home are wonderfully alive with all his phobias and hypochondria in view. Later we literally watch this man disintegrate as his master creation overwhelms him. Hoffman seems to fully understand the mental trauma of a man running as far from his own realities as he possibly can. Catherine Keener as always is right on target as his wife Adele. She has a knack for taking what seems like tiny moments and making them define exactly who this woman is. Jennifer Jason Leigh as a mentor to Caden’s daughter is always fascinating to watch and plays Maria with an ounce of irony. Tom Noonan playing the actor portraying Caden in the play is the perfect doppelganger and delightfully adds to Caden’s confused state. The all-pro trio of Michelle Williams as Caden’s new wife Claire; Samantha Morton as the irresistible assistant Hazel; and Hope Davis as Caden’s self-absorbed therapist add greatly to the merry mix. It’s nice to watch Charlie Kaufman seize control of his own work. In this instance he’s really the only one who can deliver us his Fellini-esque vision. Centering it all on the theatrical director’s weird universe Synecdoche does seem like it might be Kaufman’s own take on Fellini’s 8 ½ or even Woody Allen’s paean to that film Stardust Memories. Let’s just say we know most of it must exist somewhere inside Kaufman. Early domestic scenes could have been played flat but the novice director moves the camera around skillfully enough to make us immediately engaged in Caden’s world. Second half of the film set in the phantasmagoric warehouse is a stunning tapestry of scenes from Kaufman’s singularly fertile imagination. It’s nice to note he’s well equipped with the basic tools a director needs for this type of challenging material. Overall his film is a surprising confounding visual feast -- a dream/nightmare come to life and then spinning out of control.
Misery loves the Savages--always has. Ever since they were kids Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have been plagued by the blasé blues. Even though they went their separate ways the siblings have remained somewhat close geographically--she lives in Manhattan he in Buffalo--and in their discontentment. But what made them this way in the first place their father (Philip Bosco) is about to reunite them. After losing his mind to dementia and his longtime girlfriend (Rosemary Murphy) to well death the old man officially needs to be looked after and that’s where Jon and Wendy reluctantly come in. Despite having not seen their estranged father in ages they fly out to his Arizona senior-citizen-friendly community immediately upon word of his downfall. What they didn’t plan on however is staying more than a couple days. Ultimately they take him back to Buffalo and place him in a nursing home about which Wendy constantly feels guilty. Now forced to live together and look in the metaphorical mirror the siblings Savage learn about self-discovery mortality each other and how to revive a decades-old rivalry as though it had never gone away. Given the way Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman constantly one-up each other in The Savages you’d think there was a real sibling rivalry at play. Of course it’s merely two of today’s very best actors giving par-for-the-course flawless performances. In so doing they create something beyond chemistry: a relationship so fractured and imperfectly perfect that it could only exist between an aging brother and sister. Whether the scene calls for fireworks or subtlety solo or together Linney and Hoffman are always up to the task. Linney is especially wide-ranging as Wendy still fights her midlife crisis. The veteran actress is often heartbreaking because Wendy is often heartbroken even when she tries to convince herself otherwise but Linney still manages to leave the window of hope cracked open--for us and her character. She truly encompasses everything in this her best performance to date. Hoffman is slightly more of a supporting player here but no less impactful. The Oscar winner is apathetic through much of the film but his terse outbursts of anger and/or sadness are stark reminders of his awe-inspiring range as an actor. Perhaps the most savage Savage is the patriarch played with grace by longtime actor Bosco. But instead of vilifying Lenny or making him worthy of all your pity Bosco makes him a rollercoaster of emotion as per Lenny's dementia. It’s been nine years since writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ last--and only other--feature-length film the twisted coming-of-age tale Slums of Beverly Hills which has given her plenty of time to think grow older and think about growing older. She philosophizes aloud in The Savages a movie that addresses everything you don’t want to but with a sardonic edge to it; in fact maybe this is as much a coping mechanism for her as it is an artistic endeavor. While the movie is primarily about the title siblings it essentially explores the human condition under their guise. But Jenkins does so in a way that is never preachy never obnoxious never sappy and always astutely observed. It’s her naturalistic approach to moviemaking that will turn what is ultimately a sharp dramedy into too much of a downer to please casual moviegoers looking for lighthearted fare in wintertime--this is NOT Little Miss Sunshine--but those who go in looking for a drama will be moved occasionally to laughter. Because The Savages is that rare deep movie: heavy on symbolism and meaning light on pretense and contrivance.