Friday, May 30, 2014

The Oranges and Non-Traditional Relationships

Image from Wikipedia
A while back, my wife and I watched an indie dramedy called The Oranges. Now, Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie a 33%, but Rotten Tomatoes also gave The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug a 74%, and that movie is a piece of shit. So whatever.

It was hardly a fantastic movie, but my wife and I enjoyed it well enough.

The actual plot details are sort of tired. A middle-aged husband leaves his wife for a younger woman. The family falls apart. Shenanigans ensue. It’s a very well-worn script. But! There are things in the movie that I wanted to talk about.

Before I continue, an odd quirk about me: I find stories where the main couple grows apart interesting. I think it’s because it goes against the common idea of “soul mates.” It's not ridiculous to assume that two people can change enough to no longer have enough in common after 20 years. So, stories that buck the idea of the soul-mate, or at play with that idea a little, are interesting to me.

For example: I really enjoy the story-arc in Boy Meets World where Cory meets Lauren and ends up losing Topanga. Don’t get me wrong, Cory and Topanga totally belong together, and I love their relationship as much as the next fanboy. But he was always so sure that they would belong together that his world was rocked when he met a girl that he got along with just as well and seemed to have as much in common with. (I will note that, unfortunately, while Cory’s conflict and the idea behind the story-arc is good, Lauren is basically a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and so has no real personality...just quirks and trite situations. But my point still stands.)

So, back to The Oranges. What I liked about the movie is how it doesn't seem to force blame on either spouse when they break up.

Hugh Laurie plays a middle-aged man that ends up in a relationship with a mid-twenties young woman played by Leighton Meester. While Laurie's character fights the chemistry for a while, eventually they kiss. Obviously Laurie's infidelity is wrong. Cheating is wrong. It's interesting in the way it plays out. For one thing, when cheating is addressed in rom-coms, the cheater is often a cartoon-ish prick about the situation--i.e., Bring It On. However, Laurie's character isn't an asshole about it. In fact, he feels horrible, and goes through hoops to avoid being around Meester's character so the situation doesn't repeat itself.

They also establish that his relationship sucks anyway. There's no chemistry, no real caring in the marriage anymore. They're just together out of habit. His wife even agrees--eventually. She admits it was more the hurt of his cheating rather than the end of their relationship that bothered her.

Which leads me to the part I found the most interesting (and ultimately the most disappointing): Hugh Laurie and Leighton Meester’s relationship in the movie.

The casting was humorous since Laurie and Meester actually play a flirtatious storyline in the TV show House, where House treats a 17 year old that finds him attractive and keeps popping up and flirting with him, even going so far as giving him a calendar that counts down the days until her 18th birthday. And they definitely had chemistry in the show, which carries over into this movie.

Laurie is 54 years old, while Meester is 28. They’re almost 30 years apart--a very significant gap in age for a relationship. Despite all of that, however, their relationship came across very believable to me. They’re very into each other, but it doesn't come across as physical. They support each other emotionally--which I felt was highlighted well in the scene where Laurie comforts Meester after she loses her job.

Movies have a set way of portraying relationships. People always fall in love when they're young, and the movies always imply that they live happily every after. Getting into a relationship is supposed to be hard, but once you're in one, it's portrayed as being easy because, hey! you're in love!

This is why movies that mess with the dynamics of relationships interest me. Last Chance Harvey is interesting because how often do you see a romance movie where older people are the subject? Or This is 40, which features a couple getting pissed at each other, at their kids, at everyone. It shows how shitty life is sometimes. These movies examine aspects of romantic relationships that are rarely addressed.

This movie deals with a non-traditional relationship as well. Can people that are 30 years apart fall in love? Can they really, truly connect on an emotional level and sustain that kind of relationship, or will there always be a sort of father-daughter quality to it?

This movie's strength is also, ultimately, it's weakness. While the concept of exploring these two's relationship is interesting, the movie chickens out at the last minute. The movie ends with Laurie and Meester breaking up. Meester's character is essentially exiled--the movie basically punishes her for being the homewrecker, despite Laurie being as much, if not more, to blame for the situation. But, no, hussies gotta step, it seems. Technically, she leaves to "find herself" because she always seems to need a man in her life and she wants to correct that. This is a concept that's just shoe-horned in at the end, and not what this movie was about, which just turns Meester’s character into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl--Jesus God like we need another one of those.

The strange thing about the break up is it contradicts the point they've been making throughout the rest of the movie.

The relationship is never portrayed as strained. Sex is rarely if ever mentioned between the two. Besides a couple of making out scenes, there's a distinct lack of heat. Instead, the movie highlights the little moments. Their adorably flirty smalltalk. Laurie comforting Meester after she loses her job. Their age is never brought up as a problem. I can think of only one scene where Laurie mentions something that Meester is too young to get. It's not an awkward moment, though. It's not presented as a problem. He says something, she doesn't get it, he explains she's too young, and she makes a joke about the situation. There's not shot of him looking uncomfortable or coming to realize how young she really is. She just didn't catch his reference. As someone who is super into comics and married to someone that really isn't...your significant other not getting all of your references is not the end of the world.

Ultimately, that's the most frustrating bit: according to the movie, there’s no reason they shouldn't be together. They seem to have plenty in common. They seem to care about each other. They don't seem to get bored with each other. So why? Because he’s too old? As the characters in the movie ask...what does age have to do with it? They’re both consenting adults--and since Meester’s character is 24, it’s not like she’s some naive, just-out-of-school girl or something. 

Ultimately, while the movie introduced and explored a very interesting aspect of romantic relationships, they also dropped that ball like it was made of fire by the end, and for seemingly no other reason than because it was expected, which was disappointing. If the movie had stuck to its premise and kept them together, I think it would have been a more interesting and bolder choice, and could have resulted in more dimension for Meester’s character instead of turning her into the obnoxious Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

In-all though, I’m glad I saw it. It was interesting, and it gave me things to think about in the way age and life status affect marriages and relationships. It's not always tonally consistent, and it's well worn, but I'd say give it a look if it sounds interesting.

(As an aside, I would love to see this concept covered honestly where the genders are reversed. It's more common for older men to go after younger women than the reverse, so a movie focusing on an older woman dating--and ultimately ending up with--a younger man would be hella interesting.)