Toward the end of the 1930 Marx Brothers picture Animal Crackers, Groucho and Chico are trying to discover what became of a stolen painting—a sequence that climaxes with Chico reasoning that the painting in question hasn’t actually been stolen, but that “left-handed moths ate the picture.” I cite this because it seems like a model of pure reason when put up against the laugh-out-loud solution to the events of Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan, the latest in a long line of movies about creepy, evil, even homicidal children.
Among the film’s many mistakes is its quaint insistence on a “rational” ending. Such endings were all the rage in the 1920s, when it was felt that audiences would accept even the most preposterous tosh of an explanation so long as it wasn’t supernatural. In the case of the insanely overlong (123 minutes) and impossibly tedious Orphan, the silliness does provide the movie with a degree of entertainment value—however unintended—that it otherwise almost completely lacks. Ah, well, as the poster says, “There’s something wrong with Esther.” There certainly is—she’s trapped in this terminally dull and dimwitted movie.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you already know this is one of those stories that works on the basis that adoption is a risky business. In this case, the film throws in a little xenophobia by giving the adopted Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman, Hounddog) a foreign background complete with a Natasha Badinov accent. The message is clear: Self-possessed Eastern European orphans with a penchant for singing Billy Hill’s “Glory of Love” are not to be trusted. (What is it with psychopaths and musical fixations?) This could be valuable knowledge, though I doubt its practical application for most people.
Life lessons do not end there. I suspect there is some degree of profundity to be mined from the fact that adopting-mom Kate (Vera Farmiga) is a recovering alcoholic who is grieving over a child that was born dead, feeling guilty because she was in a drunken stupor that allowed the near drowning of deaf daughter Max (newcomer Aryana Engineer), and nursing a grudge against husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) over a tryst he had with another woman 10 years ago. I, however, am just too worn out from assessing this aggregation of angst to think about what it all means.
The bulk of the molasses-impeded movie is given over to the revelation that Esther is the exact kind of bad news one might expect from a little girl whose last adoption stint ended with the house mysteriously burning to the ground. There are three little signs that Esther is not who she seems: She won’t let mom see her naked; she won’t go to the dentist; and she won’t allow anyone to remove the ribbons she wears on her neck and wrists. My guess is that you’ve already figured out two-thirds of the supposedly shocking answer.
Of course, we know that Esther is the bad-seed incarnate, because viewers of the film get to see things the parents don’t—and we’ve seen the trailer. Kate is suspicious, but John is oblivious to such a spectacular degree that he could only exist within the confines of a cheesy horror picture. His obtuseness is endorsed by Kate’s shrink (Margo Martindale, Hannah Montana: The Movie), whose office appears to be located just outside a meatpacking plant. (Through the office windows we can see guys carrying sides of beef, which hardly seems conducive to therapy.)
I will concede that the climactic section of the movie manages to be silly, tasteless and utterly predictable all at the same time. That may be viewed as some kind of accomplishment, if one is in a charitable frame of mind. But somehow it’s neither as sincere nor as satisfying as the moment in the director’s previous horror picture, House of Wax (2005), where Paris Hilton got a pole through her head. Maybe if Hilton had played Esther? Rated R for disturbing violent content, some sexuality and language.