Director Jaume Collet-Serra's Orphan features that most indestructible and, oftentimes, luridly enjoyable of horror-flick staples - the psychopathic prepubescent - and would probably be a lot of fun if it wasn't so relentlessly unpleasant and stupid. Those of us who've been known to get a kick out of these Omen-esque outings will probably give the movie the benefit of the doubt for far longer than it deserves. But for all of its effective jolts and expert acting, Orphan is so frustratingly illogical that it trashes whatever goodwill you extend toward it, and the experience is too unremittingly dour and punishing to be any kind of not-so-guilty pleasure. (One of the friends I saw the film with left the auditorium saying, "I need a shower now." Get in line, pal.)
The movie's silly/icky vibe is all the more discouraging considering that, in its early scenes, Orphan seems rather psychologically sound. Grieving over their recent loss of their unborn child, architect John Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard) and his wife Kate (Vera Farmiga) decide to adopt the nine-year-old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a Russian émigré with impeccable manners, astonishing painting skills, and a wardrobe that suggests an Amish Anne of Green Gables. It isn't long, though, before this preternaturally serene youth is revealed to be a raving nutjob, inflicting harm on an abusive classmate, turning John and Kate against one another, and terrorizing her adoptive siblings - the Guitar Hero-obsessed Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and the mostly deaf Max (Aryana Engineer). And then things start to get really nasty.
Yet there's a world of difference between enjoyable-nasty and I-need-a-shower-nasty, and Orphan, to its discredit, crosses that line awfully early ... and continues to cross it during its seemingly endless two-hours-plus.
Screenwriter David Leslie Johnson's plotting is quite shrewd, with all of the cracks in the Colemans' family armor - John's one-time infidelity, Kate's alcoholism, Daniel's inability to communicate with Max - contributing to Esther's gradual takeover. But by the end of the film's first reel, the child is already so overly untrustworthy and malicious that you never believe that John could be blind to her monstrousness, or that Kate would put up with her for as long as she does, or that, despite their relative estrangement, neither of the Coleman kids would rat Esther out to their parents. (Before the film's halfway point, she's already threatened Max with a loaded gun and Daniel with castration.) Its setup works fine, yet Orphan winds up jumping through more and more ridiculous hoops to keep its titular hellion in the picture - the climactic revelation of Esther's true identity is either inspired or a total howl, depending on how you react to the twists leading up to it - and her actions are, alternately, so grisly and distasteful that you can't even derive any delight in laughing at the movie. (It should go without saying that young children shouldn't see the film, but I'd almost be more concerned about its effect on parents.)
In a role that makes Patty McCormack's Bad Seed look like Heidi of the Swiss Alps, Fuhrman does what she's asked to do exceptionally well - even the American youth's Russian accent is convincing - while Engineer and Bennett (the young James T. Kirk of this summer's Star Trek) are wonderfully empathetic and authentic; this young trio's professionalism lends the movie whatever plausibility it can claim. And Sarsgaard, a magnetic performer who can be remarkably nuanced even in a "regular guy" role such as John Coleman, delivers as much emotional complexity and fire as his part allows.
But while I generally believe that great acting alone can make nearly any film worth a look-see, Orphan is the type of film that's responsible for that "nearly" caveat - a graceless, draining offering that manages to nullify even the heartfelt work of the great Vera Farmiga. It should be pointed out, by the way, that it was just two years ago that this actress starred in the movie Joshua, in which she played mother to a nine-year-old boy with murderous tendencies. It's high time Farmiga was treated to a less sociopathic breed of on-screen kids. And perhaps a new agent.
THE UGLY TRUTH
There's one terrifically funny sequence in the romantic comedy The Ugly Truth, which is at least one more than you'll find in the whole of The Proposal. In it, Katherine Heigl's uptight morning-show producer, Abby, is having dinner with her boss, some prospective advertisers, and Mike (Gerard Butler), the uncouth lout who's become her show's new breakout star. For reasons that aren't worth explaining, Abby finds herself wearing a pair of vibrating panties that Mike has bought for her, not realizing that the remote control is in the hands of a pre-teen boy at a neighboring table. You can probably guess where events lead from here, but Heigl performs her initially subtle, eventually frenzied fits of orgasmic ecstasy with such infectious, unembarrassed glee that you don't even mind that the sequence is just an updated spin on Meg Ryan's classic When Harry Met Sally ... deli routine. Plus, if his presence here is to be trusted, she's likely to get far more satisfaction from her self-pleasuring underwear than she'll ever get from Butler.
Overall, director Robert Luketic's endeavor is just as broad and predictable and unamusing as any of Hollywood's weaker entries in the genre, but for the most part, it's certainly no worse. (And as Heigl vehicles go, it's definitely an improvement on last year's 27 Dresses.) The film's star radiates intelligence and good cheer even in the most contrived and charmless of situations, there's a surprising cameo from NewsRadio's too-long-absent Vicki Lewis, and any entertainment that casts John Michael Higgins and Cheryl Hines as unhappily married co-anchors is already doing something right. But while the love/hate relationship between controlling Abby and swinish Mike was sure to be contrived and (for some of us) noxious from the start, Butler's lack of screen charisma, resistance to chemistry, and considerable difficulties with his American accent make getting through the latest paint-by-numbers rom-com a true slog. I didn't buy The Ugly Truth for a minute, yet I might've if Butler had suggested that his one-note oaf was something more than a one-note oaf; the movie opens with Abby on a blind date, offhandedly brushing off Entourage's irritating Kevin Connolly, and I never thought I'd see a film in which that would come to seem like a stupid decision.