Alia Shawkat as Vanessa Walling in the movie "the Oranges." (Myles Aronowitz / ATO Pictures…)
Indie comedies set in the 'burbs are a dime a dozen, and they usually paint the nonmetro regions as repositories of conformity and inertia. "The Oranges" takes its place in that familiar realm, holding out more than the usual promise, thanks to an exceptionally strong ensemble: It stars Hugh Laurie, Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt and Allison Janney.
But if this story of midlife crisis among longtime neighbors has flickers of heart, it's only because the actors can convey more in a glance than the pages of on-the-nose dialogue they're asked to deliver. Flirting with farce, the film never gets out of comic first gear.
Narrator Vanessa Walling (Alia Shawkat) is similarly stuck. The daughter of David and Paige (Laurie and Keener), she's a would-be designer with Manhattan dreams who's living with her folks in West Orange, N.J., and working at a furniture store. Her sardonic perspective on the people and events around her is a welcome tonic; Vanessa is the most interesting character in the movie.
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But she's too soon relegated to the margins as the focus shifts to her neighbor and former best friend, Nina Ostroff (Leighton Meester), whose unexpected return home for the holidays triggers a marital implosion chez Walling.
In the time-honored cliché of middle-age ennui, the Wallings and the Ostroffs are couples merely coexisting within their large homes. Nina's gadget-happy dad, Terry (Platt), putters. Her über-controlling mom, Cathy (Janney), pretends he's invisible, and then gets busy playing matchmaker between Nina and the Wallings' son (Adam Brody).
Across the street, Paige is absorbed in a mirthless devotion to all things Christmas, while David spends more and more time in his pool-house man cave — where Nina, having fled a cheating fiancé (Sam Rosen), makes quick work of seducing him.
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Shock and eww over the affair ricochet through the families, facades crumble, and these stalled suburbanites, each in their own way, reconnect with their long-ignored bliss. As the supposed catalyst for all this liberation, Meester's Nina is not only too self-absorbed to be a convincing free spirit but she's just plain dull.
Most of the relationships remain murky because screenwriters Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss devote too much time to static talking scenes, usually loaded with theme-highlighting observations. In his first stateside feature, British director Julian Farino, whose credits include more than two dozen episodes of "Entourage" and "How to Make It in America," plods through sequences of intended hilarity and stages unconvincing "big" moments.
"The Oranges" never comes fully to life. A couple of Dean Martin holiday tunes on the soundtrack serve as reminders of the kind of oomph the movie sorely needs.