Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Think Twice Before You Adopt

Devastated by the loss of their unborn baby, Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) decide to adopt a child. At the orphanage, both feel drawn to a little girl (Isabelle Fuhrman) named Esther, and soon the couple take their new daughter home. But when a dangerous series of events unfolds, Kate begins to suspect that there is something evil lurking behind the child's angelic exterior in Orphan.

The tragic loss of their unborn child has devastated Kate and John, taking a toll on both their marriage and Kate’s fragile psyche as she is plagued by nightmares and haunted by demons from her past. Struggling to regain some semblance of normalcy in their lives, the couple decides to adopt another child. At the local orphanage, both John and Kate find themselves strangely drawn to a young girl named Esther. Almost as soon as they welcome Esther into their home, however, an alarming series of events begins to unfold, leading Kate to believe that there’s something wrong with Esther—this seemingly angelic little girl is not what she appears to be. Concerned for the safety of her family, Kate tries to get John and others to see past Esther’s sweet facade. But her warnings go unheeded until it may be too late…for everyone. Farmiga and Sarsgaard play Kate and John Coleman, a composer and an architect who we meet after a series of tragedies. They recently suffered the unbearable pain of a stillborn child that they named Jessica, past infidelity on John's part is implied, and Kate is dealing with alcoholism that nearly caused a horrible accident with her other children, the precocious Daniel and the deaf Maxine. Seems like the perfect time to adopt a foreign pre-teen! Supposedly to deal with their grief about Jessica, the Colemans adopt a child who they feel they can give all the love that they've been denied the ability to give their deceased baby girl. So they adopt Esther (Fuhrman). Bad, bad idea. Esther is purportedly a Russian child whose family died in a random fire. (Hint: If a possible new member of your family has a mysterious past that includes death and potential arson, do some research before you sign the papers.) At first, Esther is well-spoken, interesting, and the kind of unique personality that Kate and John like to encourage. She wears dresses to school and ribbons around her neck and wrists. The fact that she NEVER takes the ribbons off and screams if you come near them might be a red flag to most normal people. Not the Colemans. Things start to go all "Bad Seed" when Esther has a run-in with a girl she doesn't like at the playground. She pushes her backwards off the slide and the girl breaks her ankle. There's a bit of "she said, she said" that would probably have blown over, but when the nun (CCH Pounder) who handled the adoption comes to check on Esther, the girl panics and thinks that she's being taken away. She kills the poor woman and the cover-up only leads to bigger problems. When an insane nine-year-old Russian girl turns to her younger deaf sister and signs for her to help dispose of a body, the over-the-top ridiculousness of it all is hard not to laugh at. 

Due largely to the excellent work by Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard, Jaume Collet-Serra's Orphan is a surprisingly effective thriller that should deliver exactly what audiences expect from it. Bucking the trend of being just another "demon kid" movie, Orphan features a clever mix of honest emotion and ridiculous, over-the-top, Mommie Dearest-esque insanity. Are the moments of insanity – mostly involving kid-on-kid crime – MEANT to be funny? I'm not sure that it matters. Movies are enjoyable for what they are, not for what they mean to be. And I have to admit to mostly enjoying Orphan. It runs way too long and features a few plot twists that stretch credulity but it is a genuinely intriguing and entertaining summer adult thriller. We haven't seen too many of those in recent years.  Farmiga and Sarsgaard do everything they can to ground their characters in reality, but the script by David Johnson does them a few disservices. Of course, Esther's plan is to turn her new parents against each other and John seems to go along with it way too easily. Sure, his wife had drinking problems, but would he really trust the new kid over her so easily? I like when directors go for atmosphere over breakneck pacing and it's refreshing to see two lead characters that are way more fleshed out than the cardboard cut-outs that we usually see in the genre, but over two hours is ridiculous for a film like this one. Ultimately, Orphan is a rarely seen mixed bag of styles – the realism of Farmiga and Sarsgaard combined with the lunacy of the story they're involved in – but that's why I like it. Nine times out of ten, the actors in a film like Orphan let the jump-cuts, action scenes, and twist ending do all the heavy lifting, but these two, especially the always-great Farmiga, fully commit. Horror story, thriller, cautionary tale about shoddy adoption practices, funnier comedy than Matthew McConaughey has made in years – Orphan is one of the weirdest major studio summer movies in a long time. It's the kid at the summer movie school that no one wants to play with because he's more than a little odd. I always liked kids like that. Maybe they should've adopted one that was a little younger and avoided all the tragedy of dealing with a nine year old. This is one to see. A definite 4 on my "Go See" scale.

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