Monday, July 25, 2011

The Oranges

Genre: Indie Comedy
Premise: Two neighboring suburban families are thrown into disarray when the father of one family starts dating the daughter of another.
About: This was a huge script a few years ago as it finished Numero Two-o on the 2008 Black List, behind The Beaver and ahead of Butter and Big Hole. Co-writer Jay Reiss may sound familiar as he has another script on my Top 25 list, Lonny The Great. The Oranges has already completed production and dove straight into the chewy center of the indie film scene for its cast. We’ve got Hugh Laurie (playing David), Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, and Allison Janney. We also have Orange County native (so to speak) Adam Brody, and up and comer Leighton Meester playing the lead character, Nina.
Writers: Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss
Details: 116 pages - undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I’m a big Reiss fan. The Oranges was actually on my Top 25 List like a gazillion years ago when Scriptshadow started in the 1960s. Back then it was all about the drugs and the women man. Those were the days. Groovy. But I’ve matured a lot since then. 1500 scripts later, in addition to no longer lacing my French toast with PCP, The Oranges no longer resides inside the coveted Top 25. Somehow it slipped out. And I was curious why. It wasn’t like I’d forgotten the script. But there’s something that never sat right with me about it. I wanted to know what that was.

Say hello to another middle class suburb in Joisey, probably a stone’s throw away from where the Manzos and the Gorgas reside. This is where we meet two happy families. Or I should say two families who PRETEND to be happy. There’s married couple David and Paige. He’s overworked and she’s really gung-ho about Christmas. They have an outcast early 20s daughter named Vanessa. Then there’s Carol and Terry. Carol’s a therapist and Terry’s a gadget hound. He would sleep at Best Buy if it was legal. They have a daughter, Nina, who Vanessa used to be besties with, but not anymore. Turns out Nina left Vanessa for a bigger and better crowd. And Vanessa’s never forgotten it.

Vanessa also happens to be the narrator for our film (even though she’s probably the least important character of the bunch). She lets us know that David and Paige have ZERO chemistry with each other. Which, you know, is just like 70% of the marriages in America, so not a big deal. Except that Nina, Vanessa’s old friend, has just found out that the guy she’s marrying is cheating on her. So she runs back home to Carol and Terry, who seem to be swimming in I-told-you-sos, and starts having some inappropriately long conversations with David.

Because David isn’t exactly gung-ho about Little Miss Nutcracker (aka, his wife), he begins to entertain these flirty advances. And those advances quickly escalate to motel visits. Nothing like an aging TV set and a lack of non-bed furniture to take a relationship to the next level.

The thing is, they’re really bad at hiding their affair, so they just decide – fuck it – let’s tell everyone. Awwww. It’s so great when people are honest right? Well, unless the person you’re honest to is Paige, who was already a few twirls short of a candy cane. Paige goes on a ram-paige, moving out of the house and letting her Christmas spirit reach a whole new level. You’ll have to read to find out what that means.

Truth be told, the rest of the families aren’t really into it either. There is zero chance in hell (aka New Jersey) that David and Nina will ever be able to have a normal relationship together. So the fact that they’re selfishly trying is just leaving a lot of pissed off sons, daughters, and spouses. Even the community itself starts crumbling around them. They know they should end it. But do they?

Here’s the dealio. I liked The Oranges in a “I appreciate good screenwriting” sort of way. But I kept going back to that first read, where something didn’t sit right with me. Finally, after reading it this second time, I think I’ve located the problem. The Oranges basks in its hopelessness. Everybody here is mean and rotten and heartless and angry and selfish and cruel. Even in the central love story, between Nina and David, I didn’t feel that they liked each other so much as they wanted to use one another to piss everybody else off. Contrast that with a similar movie like American Beauty, where the central relationship, between Jane and Ricky, is so genuine.

As cheesy as it sounds, I like my movies to offer a sense of hope when they’re all said and done. I believe that’s why a lot of people go to the movies. To reaffirm their hope in the world. It’s why happy endings are so popular. If the message is just, “Life sucks, then you die,” – I’m sorry, but I can throw on CNN if I want that. And I’m not saying that’s exactly what The Oranges preaches. Vanessa and Nina do sorta rekindle their friendship at the end. But there’s no doubt that the pervasive message here is that we’re all fucked up selfish creatures doing fucked up selfish things and that there’s a good chance that’s never going to change.

But hold up. I love me a tall glass of OJ in the morning, and there are plenty of freshly squeezed bits here to savor. I liked the chances the screenplay took. For example, in every single one of these movies, the cheating couple keeps their affair secret until they’re caught. I liked that, around the midpoint, David and Nina sit everyone down and say, “Hey everybody. We’re together.” I wasn’t expecting that.  And it gave the rest of the story a whole new flavor.

Also, Paige’s obsession with Christmas and her unique Christmas-inspired breakdown is pretty damn funny. I thought it was a great choice to frame the story between Thanksgiving and Christmas in general, as it’s traditionally the most stressful month of the year. Talk about upping the conflict. I liked Ethan, Nina’s old boyfriend, popping back into the mix near the end to add even more craziness to the ordeal. Reiss and Helfer really nailed the chaotic element here. Everything that could go wrong, does go wrong, and we watch these characters hopelessly unravel as it does.

But I still can’t shake the feeling this screenplay left me with afterwards. I didn’t want to do anything for a couple of days. I just sat there and thought, “Are people really like this? Is this what America has become?” I’ll be honest. It bothered me. But the fact that the writer had me thinking at all is a good thing, as it means the story affected me in some way. And the writing itself, while not exactly inspiring “The Secret” like positivity, is really good. This was an interesting one. What did you guys think?

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I’m still not liking the message here. People are mean. Don’t trust anyone. When the going gets tough, give up. Here’s a good lesson to remember. One of the character types that really resonates with audiences, is the character who keeps trying despite the world repeatedly pushing them down. We don’t like quitters. We’re attracted to people who persevere. To see someone fall into so many pitfalls, yet keep going, is the essence of hope. It makes us feel good. If they can do it, we say, then maybe we can do it too. That’s why I liked Lonny The Great. And if you look through your list of favorite movies, I’m going to bet that 80-90% of the main characters fall into that category as well. Anyway, I just didn’t like how the characters here seemed to be continuously throwing in the towel. It bummed me out.