ORPHANS began as a play in 1983, and the success in that form for Lyle Kessler’s three-man/one-set drama has taken it into acting classes and onto stages around the globe ever since. What apparently worked so often in intimate theatrical venues did not translate on film in 1987: the $15,000,000 screen adaption (also done by Kessler), directed by the estimable Alan J. Pakula, starring the great Albert Finney, was a full-on box-office disaster, vanishing into 213th place for the year, earning but $252,430.
Two grown orphan brothers—seemingly in their early 20s—live together in a run-down Victorian house on a neglected lot in Newark, New Jersey. The elder, volatile ‘Treat’ (Matthew Modine, 28) provides for them by theft, while cowed ‘Phillip’ (Kevin Anderson, 28) stays in the house, afraid to leave, convinced by his brother he’ll die from allergy outside. His scattershot education comes from cast-off books and TV shows. One night Treat kidnaps a drunken older man named ‘Harold’ (Finney, 50), scheming to hold him for ransom. Harold, an underworld figure with a benevolent streak, quickly turns tables on the naive pair and takes on the task of refining them.
An intriguing idea, loaded with the kind of explosive confrontational and self-discovery & reveal scenes that many actors love to tackle. In the bring-the-pain practice realm of acting workshops it probably works like three cups of ayahuasca to release demons locked in the pupils. Confined to a set, in a hushed theater, the crowded rush of emotions could likely reach out and grab patrons by their ticket stubs and have them feel ‘deeper truth’.
But expanded onto the different reality-torquing plane of the screen, adding extra characters (to no useful end), several sets and jaunts into the outside world, it’s a much harder sell. Suspension of reality gets overtime pay. Treat is such a complete jerk that he rouses zip for sympathy, so all of Modine’s intensity is a wash. As Phillip, Anderson is tasked to be so frenetic, nearly simian, that it quickly crosses the line into cartoonish. A giant abandoned house, loaded with trash, yet somehow they have electricity, gas and running water? The big emotional moments are so BIG they implode–the whole deal with the map is an embarrassment.
It’s left to Finney to bring enough gravitas to the terribly-written character of Harold to maintain a bare modicum of interest. With John Kellogg and Anthony Heald. 115 minutes.
Modine: “Orphans was right after Full Metal Jacket, and it was so cleansing. It was the Nestea Iced Tea after Full Metal Jacket. It was really tight; it was, I think, 25 or 30 days of shooting. It was a play, so it was a movie about language. It was wonderful working with Albert Finney and Kevin Anderson and Alan J. Pakula…..It was just maybe my favorite movie that I’ve ever worked on.”