Orphan the surprise best-worst movie of the summer
Watching a bad movie is sort of like watching the postseason NIT. Sure, it’s not the Big Dance, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a victory to be had.
It’s clear almost immediately that Orphan is not a good movie, but it is so audacious in its badness it surely qualifies for a trophy of some kind. The film, a Hand That Rocks The Cradle-style piece of suburban suspense, examines what happens when wellmeaning, well-to-do John and Kate (Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga) adopt quiet, charming Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). An older child from Russia, Esther is quiet, smart and well-mannered (she curtsies, for God’s sake). She’s also preternaturally gifted, an expert pianist and a competent painter. Unfortunately for John and Kate, these aren’t her only talents. She’s also a class-A manipulator, saboteur and intimidator of children and adults alike. In her most aggressive moments, she resembles nothing so much as a pint-sized mob enforcer. After a warm welcome and a pleasant first few weeks, Esther’s sweet demeanor starts to erode. At school, she breaks her mean-girl classmate’s ankle, and uses her little sister to cover it up. She drops the F-bomb on her new mommy. She lies frequently, with enthusiasm. And Kate starts digging into the girl’s past only to find that her previous family died — dun Dun DUN!! — in a mysterious house fire! There are no real surprises in any of this, and even the cheap scares falter because director Jaume Collet-Serra (he helmed the 2005 House of Wax remake with Paris Hilton) gives away too much in the set-up. To name just one small but telling example, there’s a loud, squeaky medicine cabinet in Kate’s bathroom. Do you think at some point it will slam closed to reveal another character standing right behind her?! Yes. Yes it will, and you only won’t anticipate this if you’ve never seen a movie before. The film is full of little moments like this, which is a problem: It telegraphs all its punches. To extend my sports metaphors, if Orphan were a boxer, it would get knocked out in the first round. Most of this criticism relates to the first half, which is boilerplate melodrama infused with a handful of “boo”-type scares. The second half has this stuff too, but it’s ratcheted up to such ridiculous extremes you can’t help but laugh. It’s hard to pinpoint when it happens — when Esther kills a nun with a hammer, maybe? — but the film goes off the rails so quickly and with such violence that it loses all hope of being credibly suspenseful. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing — it was a dopey story anyway, so good riddance. The film works better as a comedy, and I am not exaggerating when I say the second
half of Orphan might be funnier than Brüno, and I liked Brüno. Despite the bad material she has to work with, Fuhrman does a fine job in the lead role. Her accent comes and goes, but there aren’t many pre-teens who would be able to sustain the level of menace the film requires of her. She may go on to bigger things, but Orphan saddles her with a campy mess, albeit a thoroughly entertaining one. The film ends with a Big Twist Ending, which I won’t spoil. I will only say that I have seen a lot of Big Twist Endings, and this one is somewhere between “Kaiser Söze” and “dead the whole movie” on the surprise scale. In terms of utter absurdity, however, Orphan is in a class by itself. Indeed, there’s something appealing about just how ballsy a turn it is. Future audiences will have to determine whether it has that so-bad-it’s-good quality that rewards repeat viewings, but the finale alone is so unabashedly kooky it makes this lame attempt at suspense almost worthwhile.
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