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Black List Script #2 – The Oranges by Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss

MAJOR DISCLAIMER: Since these scripts, bought or not, are currently unproduced and/or in the midst of long, tedious development processes, they may not make it to the screen for up to three years, if ever. You should know that the synopsis contains MASSIVE, EARTH-SHATTERING SPOILERS, even though this screenplay may not resemble the finished film (if any) in any way. Read at your own risk.

Secondary Disclaimer: I refer to what follows as “coverage” by the loosest definition of that term. In keeping with this blog’s tradition, I’ve crammed the notes so full of rancorous rants, it’s 1/10th as concise as actual coverage, almost falling into the category of a review. However, since I’ve included the loglines and a detailed synopsis, it’s close enough to coverage for my purposes. Deal with it.

Logline (provided by The Black List): “A man has a romantic relationship with the daughter of a family friend, which turns their lives upside down.”

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Synopsis

Notes

The Bottom Line

Synopsis

[Removed by request.]

Notes

Here’s the problem with Christmas movies: they’ve already made all the good ones. I wish Hollywood would stop trying, because when was the last time anyone made a truly outstanding Christmas movie? (Answer: 1983.) I don’t think everything has been said about the holiday, but Hollywood certainly hasn’t bothered to say anything interesting or unique. I noticed most of the characters in The Oranges have incongruous, Jewish-sounding names (for people hellbent on celebrating Christmas). It made me wonder if this would be a better script if it abandoned the overused Christmas holiday in favor of the less-exploited Hanukkah. That made me further consider other less-exploited holidays that are common for family reunions. Some of my most exciting and traumatic family experiences have occurred over Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Independence Day. Why not tap these reservoirs to at least create the illusion of uniqueness?

That rant aside, I’ll pretend for a moment that this isn’t a Christmas movie and say that The Oranges still doesn’t work. At all. I can see why Hollywood likes it—it suffers from the exact same problems as 2007’s inexplicably successful Juno. I’ll go out on a surprising limb and say that even Juno has more nuanced, believable human behavior than this one.

Let’s start with the Paige problem. We’re supposed to like David and Nina, which turns Paige into the de facto villain. In her early scenes, she and David get into mild, ineffectual arguments that I guess the writers think justify David’s “I’m just not happy in this marriage” mantra and his eventual infidelity. Then, she disappears from the script for what feels like 60 pages. She’s referenced a couple of times by Vanessa during the lazy, narration-infused montages this script apparently inherited from The Beaver, but we don’t see or hear much from her (and when we do, it adds nothing to the plot or her overall characterization). When she does return, she sort of acts like a psychopath. If we knew more about her or saw her in the intervening 60 pages, maybe this change would make some sense. It’s just another example of unbelievable human behavior by writers who know plot mechanics but don’t understand people.

The Oranges gets weighed down with examples of the writers’ unwillingness to explore actual relationships. What’s really at the heart of this failing marriage? What’s up with Nina dropping out of college to party her way around the world, fucking every imaginable man along the way, then returning home and getting involved with a man twice her age that she’s known for her entire life? Why would anybody in his or her right mind react to David’s galling speech (the one about how it doesn’t matter what kind of chaos he brings into the lives of his family members and neighbors/best friends so long as he’s happy) with quiet awe, followed by polite acceptance of this arrangement? Even minor things like a prospective employer being impressed when the applicants cell phone rings in the middle of the goddamn interview go a few steps beyond ringing false—half the scenes in this script don’t make any goddamn rational sense. Any attempt, no matter how half-hearted, to create some semblance of relatable behavior (starting by answering some of those nagging questions) would make the script infinitely more palatable.

The script’s fatal flaw, though, is the unbelievable way in which the relationship between David and Nina develops. Let’s ignore the male-fantasy notion that a 24-year-old party girl would be totally into a middle-aged guy whose idea of a good time revolves around watching television and eating. Just put that out of your minds. Instead, consider that, in nearly every early scene as their “relationship” blossoms, the writers have to make special notes of how sexy and intense certain moments are. Consider that, in later scenes after their affair is in the open, David and Nina either have to remind each other how much they love one another or remind the other characters of how “real” the relationship is. The writers have to do this because nothing about their actions or dialogue, aside from the on-the-nose stuff, suggests that this relationship is believable in any way.

I know some women go for older men; I know plenty of men go for younger women. I also know that such desires have rational psychological and biological explanations. In this script, this relationship doesn’t come across as believable even once. Every character suffers from something akin to the Paige Problem (or the Juno Problem), as the writers eschew genuine conflict and real insight into their characters in favor of uninspired, unfunny gags. Problems with the characters lead to problems with their interactions lead to problems with the believability of the relationships. End of story (literally).

I don’t want this script to transform into a dark, brutal exploration of families in turmoil. Funny movies have been made from bleak subjects like collapsing marriages (The War of the Roses, Husbands and Wives), infidelity (every other Woody Allen movie made before 1998), dysfunctional families (Home for the Holidays, Moonstruck), and May-December romances (Murphy’s Romance and The Graduate, which this movie namechecks as embarrassingly as Overdrawn at the Memory Bank does Casablanca). The thread connecting all of these movies is that the comedy comes from who the people are, not the mere fact of them doing unexpected, vaguely taboo things for unknown, unmotivated reasons.

Now, let me bring the holidays back into it for a moment. Why does this story have to take place during Thanksgiving and Christmas, other than the fact that it’s the world’s laziest shorthand for “dysfunctional family” (in the first two acts) and “treacly sentiment” (in the third)? Nina comes home because he relationship fell apart and she has nowhere else to go. Toby disappears from the script not because he lives elsewhere but because his job took him out of the country. These across-the-street neighbors are also best friends, so it’s not like they don’t spend any time together outside of holidays.

And then there’s Paige’s over-the-top Christmas obsession, an idea that could be funny if the writers ever addressed what she does from January to, let’s say, early November. I sort of love the idea of a woman who’s hellbent on organizing all her Christmas stuff as early as February, but these writers don’t put any thought into the concept since anything beyond November and December doesn’t happen in this script and is therefore irrelevant to them.

The Bottom Line

This script is terrible. Everything it tries to do has been done better elsewhere. I didn’t like The Beaver, but I feel sort of bad for trashing it so much when this is infinitely worse. At least The Beaver had some interesting ideas at its core; The Oranges has nothing.

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