Saturday, July 25, 2009


Orphan [R]
Grade: C
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman
Director Jaume Collet-Serra

I laughed all the way through the evil child thriller Orphan. Was that a good laugh? Was that a bad laugh? I don’t know. I never figured it out. All I can report is that I was laughing.

When the little dark haired homicidal maniac forces a nun’s car off the road and kills her with a hammer? That’s depraved! When she asks her curly-haired kid sister to help hide the body? Am I chuckling to myself? When she takes off her bloody baby blue mittens and places them in a little girl backpack to stash in a treehouse? Oh, try stopping me from cracking up.

That’s the natural cycle of Orphan, tilting between routine horror flick non-shocks and out-there family satire. It is like an inverted and warped version of the Disney movie where the orphan finds a place in a loving home, this time with an eerie little psychopathic girl showing off a murderous Elektra Complex. It depicts a hidden, violent childhood world taking place under the nose of parents comically wedded too deeply to their perfect family values kitsch. If Orphan were not so dependent on cheap scares and a chipping undercoat of character stupidity, it might achieve the status of a cunning clandestine family satire.

Orphan has the type of slightly clever but ultimately limited premise that attracts actors whose careers aren’t quite living up to their ability. Peter Sarsgaard once seemed on the brink of supporting role stardom. Heck he once hosted "Saturday Night Live." Nowadays, I’m just happy to see him. Then I cringe at what he’s in. When Vera Farmiga isn’t collecting critics group awards, she’s usually starring in something beneath her talent.

In previous movies, Farmiga has a history of problems with children, Russians and perverts. Here, she has all three rolled into one. After experiencing a stillbirth, she and her husband plan to adopt a child from an orphanage. There, in a little room they meet an artistic, over-articulate Russian girl dressed mainly in black (Isabelle Fuhrman). How do you know when not to adopt a mysterious Russian girl? Here’s a primer:

1) You meet a 9-year-old Russian girl who seems wise beyond her years.
2) You meet her sitting all alone in a room singing eerie Russian songs.
3) There’s a crucifix hanging in the background at a perfect camera angle.
4) When you ask where she learned all those songs, she answers, “My dog taught them to me.”

OK, OK, OK, that last line isn’t actually in there. But it might as well be. So when people start turning up maimed, why does it take so long for the parents to put two and two together? Perhaps they don’t watch enough horror movies.

There is no way for Orphan to end in accordance with its best features. You can’t finish this type of film off with comedy. So you have to finish it with cheap, dumb, lousy would-be terror. It’s an ending that betrays the best and darkest spirit of the film. Such a shame.

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