I’ve been following along with the indie black comedy The Oranges for over a year now, because I was so ensnared by the premise: The movie follows the Ostroffs and the Wallings, two suburban New Jersey families who’ve grown up across the street from each other. But one holiday season, self-involved Nina Ostroff (Leighton Meester) comes home for Christmas following a break-up and ends up falling for her dad’s best friend David Walling (Hugh Laurie), a father figure she’s known since she was in diapers. Further complicating matters are Nina’s overbearing mother Cathy (Allison Janney) and her father Terry (Oliver Platt), hurt by his best friend’s betrayal. Not to mention David’s estranged wife Paige (Catherine Keener), cockblocked son Toby (Adam Brody), and daughter Vanessa (Alia Shawkat), who used to be friends with Nina.
It’s so easy for all the injured parties to blame Nina for causing strife between these close-knit families, but David comes to her defense, saying that it was equally his choice and that everyone should let them explore this unorthodox love story. In the same way, you could write off The Oranges as going for the cheap thrills with this scandalous plot, but if you keep an open mind you’ll find that it’s actually a sensitive, fabulously acted rumination on age being just a number and pursuing what makes you happy even if it seems wrong.
Of course, I knew that I was going to like this movie no matter what, because for years I wanted to be in Nina’s shoes. In high school, I nursed weird crushes on older guys. That was the same time that the medical drama House was at its peak, and I was hopelessly enamored of Hugh Laurie’s brash, brilliant Dr. House. He solved impossible medical emergencies but he was also tormented by physical pain and regret, which made him a raging asshole to anyone who tried to get close to him. Except for those few episodes where he admitted he needed help and let Cameron, Cuddy, and/or Wilson in for the briefest of moments.
Weirdly enough, it’s not like I dated guys who were anything like this; my high school boyfriends were sweet, artsy nerds like myself. But junior year was also when I returned to the fanfiction world after a couple years away, with my main fandom being (not surprisingly) House. I wrote angsty fic about House and Cameron hooking up, I joined discussions about who House should end up with, and I watched every other movie or TV show Hugh Laurie had ever done. That’s how you know I’m crushing on an actor—I’ll sit through a cheesy British rom-com called Maybe Baby just to glimpse the guy shirtless.
I knew that Hugh Laurie wasn’t your typical hot Hollywood actor, nor was he a silver fox like George Clooney or other, more commonly accepted older crushes. But there was still something about him I found so alluring, even though I couldn’t admit it aloud to anyone out of embarrassment. But I didn’t need to talk to anyone about it, because I had online fandom, and because I got to live vicariously through Leighton Meester when she guest-starred on House.
Yep, The Oranges is actually the second time that Hugh and Leighton have played age-challenged love interests. In 2006, a pre-Gossip Girl Leighton appeared on two episodes of House as Ali, a teenager who goes all out to seduce House. I’m talking taking off her top for a routine stethoscope exam, wearing Juicy Couture hot pants, and straddling House’s motorcycle all suggestively. And the best part is, you can see that House is clearly attracted to her even as he knows that to touch her would mean the end of his medical career. It was the show’s way of poking fun at America sexing up Hugh Laurie even though House never set out to make him a sex symbol.
That’s why I have to scoff at reviews of The Oranges that claim Leighton and Hugh have no chemistry. Some even say that Alia Shawkat should’ve been cast in Leighton’s role, but I disagree: We needed Leighton — who we all know as prissy Blair Waldorf — to properly communicate how oblivious and selfish Nina is at the start of the film, and to provide proper context to her relationship to David.
“The love that Hugh and I portray is not some sort of physical infatuation,” Leighton explained at the press day. “It really comes across as a relationship that has respect and a real rapport. And that was easy with Hugh. He’s someone I’ve known and I genuinely could fall in love with.”
“It’s not like we’re doing Lolita here,” Hugh added. “The consequences of these characters’ actions are taken very seriously and respectfully. Having said that, having known Leighton from her experience on House was an enormous help.”
Because The Oranges is primarily about consequences, the filmmakers actually skimped a bit on the actual mechanics of Nina and David’s relationship. The scenes where both recognize their attraction — Nina having not been home since she was 19, and now an alluring young woman seeing this father figure in a new light — are wonderfully paced and wholly realistic. But the movie skips right over the actual issue of sexual attraction, aside from a much-promoted scene where Allison Janney’s character asks her daughter, “How do you feel about sucking David’s old balls?”
In that way, I feel like the filmmakers got skittish and tried to make the movie less offensive by being more crass. Still, they do delve into the good that this relationship does for everyone—shifting between scenes of David and Nina going on vacation in Atlantic City where no one knows them, to Paige finding a new outlet for her energy to Vanessa finally confronting the fact that she’s stagnating at home after college.
The Oranges is one of those movies that ends where it begins, and yet everything has changed. I would have liked for them to do a slightly better job selling the young woman/older man romance, because these days it’s not so far-fetched. The movie constantly vacillates between presenting this relationship as a freakish affair and as a natural attraction. But at least they’ve started that conversation. Maybe in another six years we’ll see Leighton and Hugh go for this pairing again and get it wholly right.
Check out the red band trailer below. The Oranges is out in select theaters now!
Photos: ATO Pictures, Fox