Roman Polanski does not bring anything new to the upper-middle-class-parents-behaving-like-children genre with his film Carnage, but with a taut 79-minute running time and four great film actors at the top of their respective game, it makes for a very worthy trip to the cinema. Based on the Yasmina Reza play God of Carnage, Polanski’s film makes excellent use of single location photography and is filled with enough self-references and witticisms to please any high minded moviegoer. It’s drawing room comedy, which can be broad, but when it hits the right notes it offers a nice mix of Schadenfreude and good clean fun.
The Cowans (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) have come to the Manhattan apartment of the Longstreets (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) to settle the dispute between their sons on a local playground. Ethan Longstreet would not allow Zachary Cowan to join his gang, so Zachary struck him in the face with a stick in frustration. The boys’ parents don’t pursue violence to settle their dispute; instead choosing to tear down one another’s moral fabric over the course of an afternoon. The laid back, blue collar Michael (Reilly) lets his temper erupt in the form of verbal attacks. The recipient of many of these attacks is his wife Penelope (Foster) who struggles to maintain a perception of intelligence and “class” amidst the chaos. The neurotic Nancy (Winslet) tries to maintain calm before she literally spews frustration, and her controlling husband Alan (Waltz) is the catalyst for every major conflict in the group.
The film unwraps like a long form improv scene, with miniature games being played within each beat. The Cowans try to exit via the elevator numerous times and the Longstreets are charged with convincing them to stay in the apartment. Alan has the objective to disrupt tense moments as often as possible with inane cell phone conversations. Michael has to mention his wife’s cobbler anytime somebody says something negative. All of these games play out organically, making for a whole lot of fun.
This style of comedy is relatively new ground for Polanski. Yasmina Reza’s script, translated and adapted by Polanski, borrows from plays like Who’s Afraid of Virigina Woolf? and many an Oscar Wilde piece to put up a reflective lens to the intelligentsia. On the surface, we see their hypocrisy exposed as the tension begins to boil. Below the surface we see a brilliant internal and external conflict between the right and left brains of the various characters. Their compassion crumbles as they begin to reveal that there was never any kindness in them from the beginning.
The only character that remains unwavering is Christoph Waltz’s objectivist lawyer, Alan. He never even bothers to put up a façade of kindness as he interacts with his wife and this new family. When his wife vomits, he cares more for his own shoes than for her well-being. Throughout the group’s conversations, he employs subtle verbal taunts that act as a catalyst for the eventual crumbling. With his confident European sensibility, Waltz is perfect for the role and once again he nails it by being deplorable, but wonderfully magnetic.
Jodie Foster plays a more high strung character than we are used to seeing from her and Kate Winslet does not have to stretch to pull off the high class neurosis that her character exhibits. John C. Reilly has some of the funnier individual line readings, especially in the latter scenes, but his transition from polite, simple guy to enraged maniac is not entirely believable. There are times when it seems more like he thinks he is in a Will Ferrell comedy instead of an otherwise high-minded farce.
There are moments when the comedy becomes a bit repetitive, like the bits with Waltz’s cell phone, but the economy of the running time makes it hardly something to dislike about the film. When the games that each character is playing become apparent, the experience becomes all the more enjoyable.
Bottom Line: Roman Polanski does not bring anything new with Carnage, but with a taut 79-minute running time and four great actors it makes for a very worthy trip to the cinema.