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MOVIE REVIEW

Orphan

Creepy, funny, appalling: ‘Orphan’ brings it home

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / July 24, 2009

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To the Hellspawn ranks of Damien, Rosemary’s baby, Rhoda “Bad Seed’’ Penmark, and the Olsen twins, let us now add the title character of “Orphan.’’ Her name is Esther, which sounds about as scary as your bubbe, but as played by the very serious young actress Isabelle Fuhrman she’s a prim little psycho with a taste for cutlery and an accent out of downtown Transylvania. The movie has already come under heavy fire from the national adoption community as the absolute worst PR a foster child could ever have, and correctly so: As a concept, “Orphan’’ is reprehensible. As a movie, it’s entertaining trash - a good bad movie you can shriek at, laugh at, or both.

Vera Farmiga should probably poke her agent with a stick, though, since she played the exact same distressed-mom role in 2007’s “Joshua.’’ Here she’s Kate Coleman, still reeling from the stillbirth of her third child (given the full nightmare treatment in the film’s opening scenes; if you have pregnancy anxieties, stay away) and trying hard not to become a full-time wineaholic.

Husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) has just the idea to cheer her up: Let’s adopt! Off they go to the Sisters of No Background Check Necessary Orphanage, where bringing home a spooky Eastern European 9-year-old is as easy as a visit to the puppy mill. Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder! In a wimple!) will personally rubber-stamp the adoption papers for you.

The Colemans’ children, no fools they, realize that Esther is not the poised Victorian china doll she appears to be. Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) sulks in his treehouse and uses pigeons for paintball practice, while little Max (Aryana Engineer), who’s partially deaf, pads faithfully after her new sibling even after the blood starts to flow. Or, in this case, the nun hits the hammer.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (he did the recent “House of Wax’’ remake) moves “Orphan’’ along efficiently, doling out a “boo!’’ shot every few minutes with mechanical professionalism. (He also overuses the dreaded reverse-gotcha-non-boo shot, in which you’re primed to jump but nothing appears.) Fuhrman is eerily deadpan as little Esther, and she gives the character a residual sadness under the craziness under the politeness, as though a lifetime of disappointment would make anyone a little homicidal.

The best part of “Orphan’’ - besides giggling at the doomy obviousness of the dialogue and the never-ending revelations of just how eeeevil Esther might be - is watching Kate slowly grow from a spineless noodle to a ticked-off ubermom as her suspicions are slowly confirmed. Her husband ridicules her, as does her psychiatrist (Margo Martindale), but no matter: Paranoia just makes Kate stronger.

Actually, the best part of “Orphan’’ is the outstandingly lunatic plot twist that kicks in just as you’re checking your watch and hoping they’ll wrap things up. This development - I’d love to tell you, but you wouldn’t believe me - boosts the movie into overdrive for a final 20 minutes of happy, disreputable mayhem. You come out high on the fumes of the film’s preposterousness, glad to be back in the real world, and looking for a child to hug.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

ORPHAN Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Written by: David Leslie Johnson and Alex Mace

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, CCH Pounder

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 123 minutes

Rated: R (disturbing violent content, some sexuality and language)

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