A short, tart, altogether delectable slice of misanthropy from Director Roman Polanski, Carnage is the funniest film I saw last year.
Adapted from Yasmina Riza’s Tony Award-winning play, God of Carnage, it follows the deceptively simple structure of two high-falutin’ sets of parents in an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood, forced to hash things out after their pre-teen kids have an unfortunate after-school altercation that ends with a couple missing teeth.
Hell just so happens to be other people, and Reza’s clockwork farce digs up hidden resentments on all fronts. Passive-aggressive sniping devolves into outright hostility, even moreso once the vintage Scotch gets uncorked. Dismissed by some as a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf knock-off in which both couples are George and Martha, Reza’s play seems to have as many detractors as it does admirers. Count me in the latter category.
I saw God of Carnage during its initial New York run in 2009, starring James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels. A hilarious night of theater, it nonetheless stuck me as an evening staged by, and for, ritzy New Yorkers. (We also had better seats than Henry Winkler, which was awesome.) What’s so fascinating about Polanski’s cinematic adaptation is his jaundiced outsider perspective on the same material, foreign—if you will—to the Broadway incarnation.
Daniels’ role as a milquetoast corporate lawyer has here been assumed by Christoph Waltz, the sly, silky voiced “Jew-Hunter” of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Obsessively tending to his iPhone, often to the detriment of any attempts at conversation, Waltz’s Alan is an expertly tailored weasel, gliding into the apartment, snorting his laughs and oozing outright contempt for social niceties. Polanski unsubtly positions him as the de facto hero of this picture, but only if you can imagine anybody escaping this mess unscathed.
His wife, Nancy, played as an extraordinary bundle of nerves by Kate Winslet, is a high-strung hot mess decked out in pearls. For once, Winslet’s wavering American accent comes in handy, as she’s so desperately keeping up appearances, the placid surface patter can barely contain her roiling dissatisfaction. And that’s before she gets drunk and throws up all over the damn place.
Positioning one trendy Brooklyn Heights apartment as a dungeon worthy of Luis Bunuel, Reza’s cutting script (adapted for the screen with Polanski’s assistance) finds Alan and Nancy descending upon the oh-so-happy home of Penelope and Michael Longstreet. Penelope’s played by Jodie Foster as a marvel of pinched, moneyed do-gooder platitudes. She’s writing a book about Darfur, and don’t think she will let you forget that for an instant.
Henpecked Michael is an entirely different story. In yet another phenomenal performance by John C. Reilly (who with this film, Cedar Rapids , Terri and We Need To Talk About Kevin outdid even Jessica Chastain for ubiquitous 2011 awesomeness), he’s an easygoing fella just aching to be pushed over the line. Towering over Foster and bulging out of his ill-fitting sweater, Reilly is always one drink away from making announcements like: “My wife dressed me up as a liberal today, but …”
The pleasures of Carnage are simple, and not exactly profound. It’s just plain fun to watch these people bitch at one another, especially when the actors are in such superb form. My favorite moment finds Foster and Winslet attempting to one-up one another while ostensibly discussing the works of Francis Bacon. The painter’s command of “such cruelty and splendor” is altogether beside the point, they just want to get their licks in.
Polanski has a keen grasp of the material’s essential absurdity, venturing out of the apartment only for a pair of bookending, Michael Haneke-inspired shots to remind us that this is all much ado about a meaningless schoolyard scuffle. In startling contrast to the Broadway production, the filmmaker seems to side with Waltz’s Alan, regarding the rest of these characters’ drunken meltdowns with a similarly bemused smirk.
And good lord, his direction! Shooting in widescreen cinemascope, Polanski crams these people into increasingly tighter frames, teaming up the actors in elegant arrangements that visually convey the power dynamics within their relationships as the conversation turns, from moment to moment. You can watch Carnage with the sound turned off, and still understand who is winning an argument just by looking at the blocking. It’s masterful work.
I guess now is where I am probably supposed to make a shitty joke about Roman Polanski being so good at shooting a single room because he spent so much time under house arrest. But I respectfully decline. Since the 1960s, he’s been a master at trapping his characters within confined spaces, claustrophobia just suits his sensibility.
As does Reza’s dyspeptic worldview. I won’t argue claims that Carnage is thin material, but at a fleet hour and 20 minutes, it’s breathlessly paced, flawlessly executed and every time Kate Winslet belched I fell in love with her a little more.
Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz