Suburban satire has been a go-to semi-indie subgenre for at least a couple of decades now, most visibly, the Oscar-winning American Beauty and the early films of Alexander Payne. Still, it remains tricky material to master, as two new films, The Oranges and Butter, demonstrate in tandem. Though each features enough acting talent to fill a new network TV season, both fail to generate enough interest to fill a couple of hours.
The Oranges begins with so much narration from Vanessa Walling (Alia Shawkat) that it feels like it must be based on a novel, observing a rift between two ultra-close suburban families. Vanessa’s parents, Paige (Catherine Keener) and David (Hugh Laurie), spend most holidays and plenty of free time with Carol (Allison Janney) and Terry Ostroff (Oliver Platt) across the street. When the Ostroffs’ daughter Nina (Leighton Meester) returns home unexpectedly for Thanksgiving, she finds herself attracted to David, throwing the families out of whack.
The movie relies on Vanessa’s occasional voiceover to explain the families’ relationships, rather than dramatizing them, such that its few flashback scenes are smothered with her exposition. But that doesn’t mean it sticks to Vanessa’s point of view; instead, this view drops in and out, as if the script is adapting stray chapters of a novel. As it turns out, though, The Oranges doesn’t come from a novel; it’s just an incompetent adaptation of itself.
The actors nonetheless give the writing their best shot. Some of them have worked together before (Platt and Keener played spouses in Please Give; Platt and Janney both worked on The West Wing; Meester and Laurie know each other from House), and so we might hope can recombine with the requisite chemistry. But no one generates the easy familiarity that should come with a two-decade inter-family friendship. Platt, so often the MVP of a bad movie, is very funny as a hapless man who, suddenly missing his longtime friends, must find new ways to love his life. But for every funny bit, like Platt joining an Ultimate Frisbee league, The Oranges offers at least one sequence or subplot to go nowhere. None is more off-putting than a spectacularly unfunny scene where spurned wife Paige wrecks a bunch of Christmas decorations with her car.
Are we supposed to find Paige’s sudden rebellion against suburban Christmas yards cathartic? Sad? Hilarious? I’m not sure. When doling out these off-key humiliations, the film doesn’t feel particularly affectionate, but it never finds targets for social satire, either. Though The Oranges is named after a suburban section of New Jersey, its version of Jersey has little specificity or sense of place. Everyone in the movie feels like a visitor who dropped in a few minutes before the cameras rolled.
Jim Field Smith’s Butter has grander ambitions, viewing larger political follies through a prism of regular yokels in a way that makes Election an obvious, and unfortunate, point of comparison. Just as Payne’s movie (via Tom Perrotta’s novel) riffed on the three 1992 presidential candidates, Smith tries to churn together the political figures of 2008 into a rube-ribbing story about butter carving.
Yes, the state-fair staple of butter carving is revealed as a potentially cutthroat competition, which might be interesting if the movie didn’t see it as a vehicle for the sinister machinations of Laura (Jennifer Garner), wife of butter-carving champion Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell). She sees his popularity as an easy path to the governor’s office, and when Bob decides to bow out and give someone else a shot at the big prize, Laura goes ballistic and enters the game herself.
Though the movie isn’t sharp or exacting enough to say for sure, Laura seems to be conceived as a woman with Hillary Clinton’s level of ambition and Sarah Palin’s ideology. Pious and self-righteous, she steamrolls everyone around her, a caricature too obvious to be effective. Laura’s broadness makes her biases and motivations so transparently unpleasant that she seems to exist in a vacuum; with so few people even trying to stand up to her, her potential threat shrinks as the movie drags toward her comeuppance.
That comeuppance must come from a hopeful upstart. If Laura is supposed to be a Clinton-Palin bastardization, the movie’s Obama stand-in would have to be Destiny (Yara Shahidi)—a young, African American butter-carving prodigy, though again the movie muddles any more trenchant parallels by making Destiny a sweet-hearted and wise little orphan, bounced between foster homes while hoping that her absent mother will return to claim her. Even on this cute-kid level, Destiny is unpersuasive, a device to generate a mix of sympathy for and faux-irreverent goofs on her newest foster parents, Ethan and Julia Emmet (Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone). When Destiny asks, “Are these crackers for real?” it’s not hilarious, but a Stuff White People Like sort of cheap shot, begging for a laugh because a little black girl called some dorks “crackers.”
That line comes from Destiny’s share of the narration; as in Election, the opponents have dueling voiceovers, periodically explaining their points of view, and as in The Oranges, these add absolutely nothing, no good lines, and no motivations that couldn’t be gleaned from everyone’s broad behaviors. The screenplay piles on the explanation when Laura talks to herself, berating herself like Annette Bening in American Beauty, lest we fail to understand the self-loathing underneath her polished veneer.
It’s a letdown to see Garner, so good as the similarly uptight and ambitious adoptive mother in Juno, reduced to these histrionics. As in The Oranges, the cast here features a number of TV pros; the one who seems to have the most fun is Olivia Wilde, playing a stripper trying to manipulate Bob Pickler—and irritate Laura by entering the butter contest herself. She rides around on a child-size bicycle, flips everyone off, and generally embodies the would-be anarchic spirit of the whole farce.
But in the end, Butter‘s cynicism, while snappier and better structured than The Oranges, turns cutesy long before giving way to sentimentality. Its central sadness comes not from its characters, but the filmmakers’ smugness. There’s something a little pitiful about a big-screen sitcom that fancies itself a cutting satire.