'The Oranges' and 'Butter': Suburban Satire Revisited

The Oranges (2011)

The Oranges and Butter each features enough acting talent to fill a new network TV season, yet both fail to generate enough interest to fill a couple of hours.

The Oranges

Director: Julian Farino
Cast: Leighton Meester, Hugh Laurie, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, Catherine Keener, Alia Shawkat, Adam Brody
Rated: R
Studio: ATO
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-10-05 (Limited release)
Official site


Director: Jim Field Smith
Cast: Jennifer Garner, Yara Shahidi, Ty Burrell, Rob Corddry, Alicia Silverstone, Olivia Wilde, Ashley Greene, Hugh Jackman
Rated: R
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-10-05 (Limited release)
Official site

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.

Butter (2011)

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.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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