The Week in Dodgy Cinema: Welcoming the Icky Orphan ; Bumping the Ugly ( Truth )

Somewhere in the vast sub-suburban bleakness of "America"-But-Actually-Canada, where it's always a gloomy 4:45 pm in the dead of winter, a sweet and curiously affluent WASP family just begging for horror and torture are about to adopt a charming little Russian girl named Esther, whom they will bring into their pricey post-modern home. Esther, in turn -- as we've observed from the trailer -- will bring said horror and torture. As viewers, our exploration of this scenario is threefold: 1. What is wrong with Esther? (I've been asking that about Madonna for several years); 2. How can the cute WASPs stop her?; and 3. Why is this movie two full hours long?

Cute kid. Hide the toolbox.
(photo: Dark Castle / Warner Bros. Pictures)

So it goes with Orphan -- the latest silly shocker from Joel Silver's William Castle-inspired Dark Castle Entertainment (formed ten years ago with Robert Zemeckis and Gilbert Adler). While the company errs on the side of explicit gore and violence more than I would prefer, I nonetheless seem to recall reviewing their Thir13en Ghosts (sic) and Ghost Ship, and whatever pretentious film-criticky things I wrote, I'm sure I had some pulpy fun viewing them. (Fortunately, with their 2005 House of Wax "remake" -- directed by Orphan's Jaume Collet-Serra -- I just switched on the box precisely for Paris Hilton getting impaled through the skull, then switched off again, satisfied.)

Here in Orphan's land of wintery chills (and astounding thundersnow!) -- atmospherically just down the old logging road from David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone and Sarah Polley's Away from Her -- the couple called (go figure) John and Kate (Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga, both game for gradually revealing their characters' failings and neuroses) are driven by Kate's late-term stillbirth (hideously depicted in an opening nightmare sequence; thanks for the splatter, guys) to visit one of those charming country orphanages apparently launched by the Dr. Wilbur Larch Foundation. Soon enough they're enchanted by eerie little Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman, successfully doing all this movie's heavy lifting), who is ridiculously gifted (paints like a genius) and intelligent (learns sign language in about ten minutes), and -- apart from the weird ribbons she refuses to remove from her neck and wrists -- seems a model nine-year-old.

Two great child actors. Go figure.
(photo: Dark Castle / Warner Bros. Pictures)

Ah, yes -- the sign language. The increasingly confused and irritable John and Kate, despite their passion to share their love for their lost child with a new inductee, already have two natural children of their own: Little Max (Aryana Coleman, truly excellent) who is (narratively speaking) conveniently mute and hearing-impaired; and her older brother Daniel (Jimmy Bennett -- whom I knew I wasn't digging but couldn't place why: But of course, he plays the very annoying "Young Kirk" in the new so-called Star Trek). While Esther quickly coaxes Max to trust her, Daniel starts off icy and hastily veers rude ("Send her back to retard camp!"), resulting in increasingly violent and stunningly crude manipulations from his undesired new sibling -- all of which eventually wrenches the family apart.

Orphan is actually a pretty good little B-movie thriller -- sort of V.C. Andrews pulp by way of The Ring/Ringu (except this spooky little girl isn't dead) -- and most of its uncomfortable fun lies in Esther doing and saying increasingly psychotic things a little girl should (would?) simply never, ever do or say. That said, while theoretically this conflict proves intriguing, in practice (and on film rather than the page) it is a bit painful to behold, and leads one to wonder what happens to the psyche of a child actor after spewing the sort of filth Fuhrman plentifully spews here. (This I consider to be the movie's real controversy -- if any -- for complaints about its adoption-gone-bad theme seem as pertinent as, say, animal-rights activists and pooch-smoochers getting all uppity over Cujo; it's a movie.) Fuhrman -- all of eleven during filming -- is good at her job, though: She makes all the Damiens look like harmless wax dummies.

Treehouse of horror!
(photo: Dark Castle / Warner Bros. Pictures)

Leonardo DiCaprio is also a producer on Orphan, and as he's announced that he'd like to produce a new Twilight Zone movie, the main problem with this film is made evident: It's simply too sluggish and long, a Twilight Zone episode extended beyond its reasonable run-time. I could nit-pick the movie further (the orphanage's doomed nun CCH Pounder drives a car from, apparently, the 1940s?), plus the cheap shocks really are offensively cheap -- but overall I like the murky atmosphere and the freakish reveals, and thus can grant Orphan a limited pass. But in this wintry world of murder and misery, one question remains: Why has the filmed adaptation of The Lovely Bones completely vanished?

He's crude. Get it? Huh-huh.
(photo: Columbia Pictures / Sony)

Meanwhile, representing this week's extreme counter-programming, we get Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler hamming their way through The Ugly Truth -- yet another wearying "battle-of-the-sexes" romp that's sure to please dumb people but didn't please me. Egad -- you see, the challenge with reviewing something as perhaps well-intended but ultimately insipid as this is to speak one's own ugly truth without coming across as a meanie. Thus, while "crap" and "junk" suffice, I'll give them one more paragraph, for effort:

Co-executive producer Heigl plays an uptight Sacramento television producer who strictly adheres to behavioral and statistical checklists in her boneheaded quest for a mate -- until of course her cat (her cat!) turns her on to Butler as a mega-crude, Adam Corolla-type TV sex-advice personality. Screenwriting 101 meets Profanity 101 as Heigl learns to get comfortable with the word "cock" and -- how did you guess? -- opposites attract! En route to the unpardonably obvious wrap-up, let's see, we get Butler rudely coaching Heigl on how to catch a "perfect" guy ("Now tell him goodnight and stick your tits out"), a lame restaurant-orgasm scene which makes one yearn desperately for the Meg Ryan of yore, and a shiny new term for female masturbation: Flickin' the bean. Heck, have at it, first-daters; at least it'll make you both feel smart.