You've seen Orphan, and you just may not know it. That is, if you've seen The Bad Seed, The Good Son, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, or Shadow of a Doubt, you've seen Orphan. Its basic premise—seemingly innocent outsider joins/attempts to seduce/kill/take over family unit—has shown up many times before. Orphan's flaws lie in the fact that it lacks the kind of intelligence and imagination that can work around a tired concept.
Vera Farmiga plays Kate Coleman, a woman recovering from both alcoholism and a recent miscarriage. Although initially reluctant to adopt, she and her husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) find themselves charmed by precocious American Girl Doll look-alike Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a little Russian girl who enjoys painting, playing piano, and murdering nuns. The couple welcomes Esther into their family with open arms but after a series of bizarre “accidents,” Kate begins to realize that Esther is all kinds of bad news.
The performances here are, for the most part, decent enough. Farmiga proved herself in her breakout role in The Departed, and here she really sells her portrayal of a woman struggling to keep her family and life together; unfortunately, any kind of character development takes a back seat to tense Google searches and dramatic phone conversations. Sarsgaard tries giving the material some serious effort and it yields mixed results: His first meeting with Esther is a nice bit of acting, while the scene in which a drunken and distraught John gets hit on by a tramped up Esther is so over the top it feels like it came from a really terrible community college production of Lolita. Aryanna Engineer and Jimmy Bennett (perhaps better known as the scene-stealing James T. Kirk-as-a-kid in Star Trek) as the couple's biological children, Max and Daniel, give perfectly fine performances and the novel decision to make Max deaf allows for a clever sequence toward the movie's conclusion.
Fuhrman's Esther is harder to pin down. She succeeds at conveying sweet and charming early on, but later attempts to make her scary, more often than not, come across as silly (the most memorable is the borderline absurdist moment when she challenges kindergarten-aged Max to a game of Russian roulette). She isn't exactly helped by a Russian accent that would make Rocky and Bullwinkle villains Boris and Natasha cringe.
Ultimately, the acting can't be faulted for the movie's mediocrity, which lies with the writing duo of David Johnson and Alex Mace and director Jaume Collet-Serra. Orphan is a nondescript, by-the-numbers horror flick that confuses gore (Esther really likes hammers) and cheap scares (scary music swells as a woman brushing her teeth is accidentally freaked-out by seeing her husband in a mirror) for actual suspense. Oh, and the twist the ads play up? Insultingly stupid.