Right Film, Wrong Director

Roman Polanski turns a comedy into a bout of claustrophobic cynicism. But the actors are great.

Roman Polanski’s Carnage, a brisk 79-minute adaptation of the wildly successful play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, is a case of the right film by the wrong director.

This one-set, four-character theater piece that kept audiences in stitches for long runs in London, Paris and on Broadway, is a giddy war of words and modern manners between a quartet of highly sophisticated, unspeakably duplicitous New Yorkers who thrust and parry on the front lines of the domestic battlefield to see who can draw more blood with the sharpest teeth and most insincere smile. It’s a slight but highly entertaining little morsel that leaves you laughing and thinking about how rotten apples never fall far from the tree, and it needs a director who knows how to move four people nimbly through a single living room in Brooklyn without claustrophobia.

Polanski is a gimlet-eyed master craftsman, but comedy is not his forte. Shot in one room in real-time, with four performances at the director’s disposal that are nothing short of sensational, you fall under the spell of the actors, hypnotized, while you gasp for breath, wishing somebody would knock out a wall, or at least open a window.

Polanski is a dark, brooding director who works better in the dark. Everything in Carnage is dank and uncomfortable and the biting wit that kept audiences roaring onstage has, in the close proximity of Polanski’s limited and unsparing camera range, turned relentlessly cynical. Rarely has a filmed stage play looked more staged.

Polanski’s one concession to “opening up” the action is to show a long shot of the actual incident that inspires everything that follows. On a Brooklyn playground, an 11-year-old boy named Zachary Cohen hits another boy, Ethan Longstreet, with a stick, breaking two of his teeth. In the aftermath, the two sets of affluent, middle-class parents, proud of their parenting skills and sense of over-educated intelligence, logic and fair play, decide to handle the matter diplomatically, like the civilized people with moral values they consider themselves to be. Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), the parents of the injured boy, invite Nancy and Alan Cohen (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), whose brat wielded the stick, to their upscale, artfully furnished apartment to discuss things rationally.

No lawsuits are threatened, no accusations intended, but there is the psychological trauma to analyze. And there’s an orthodontist bill to consider. Who will pay for that? “Penny” (brilliantly played by a tight-lipped and pinch-faced Foster) is a left-wing liberal writer and human rights advocate who tries to hide her sense of moral superiority and indignity by playing the polite hostess, serving wine and a homemade cobbler fresh from the oven, but she can’t hide her immediate annoyance with the smug, supercilious Alan (another positively outstanding transformation by the great Waltz), a rude, powerful attorney who interrupts every thread of conversation by talking incessantly on his cellphone. The tension builds, while Penny’s husband Michael (Reilly), a lowly salesman of kitchen supplies, and Alan’s investment broker wife Nancy (a flaming neurotic played by a hilarious Winslet) try to maintain damage control. Eventually, touchy questions about dental insurance and accountability, fortified by entirely too much drinking, lead to a shocking and uproarious bout of projectile vomiting (do they give Oscars for such things?) that ruins the carpet and some of Foster’s priceless coffee table art books. The men insult each other’s wives. The women are ready to head for the divorce courts. And by the time the prize 18-year-old single malt whiskey comes out, all four adults contemplate murdering their children—and each other. In the course of one harrowing evening, the grown-ups sink to the level of their kids and engage in the same kind of two-fisted aggressive behavior that started the trouble in the first place.

A frothy domestic comedy verging on farce is a strange choice of material for Polanski. There is no reason why the four combative parents should keep coming back into the room for more mayhem. What was rooted in the polemics of reason onstage seems contrived onscreen. A serious lack of pace prevails, but the screenplay (adapted by Reza from her hit play, with an assist from the director) does admirably allow the actors to explore and build their own characters from inside out.

The flaws in Carnage in no way detract from the four colorful, galvanizing centerpiece performances. I love watching them play off each other, the challenging choices they make to break down their lines in deliveries that left me agog with adrenaline, the mesmerizing way their expressions tell so much about what they’re thinking. Scathing and funny and cynical about contemporary society and the hypocritical way we live now, Carnage may not be the dream movie I expected, but it has a dream cast of pure, unimpeachable ensemble perfection.

Carnage (R) ★★★☆☆

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