Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriter: Yasmina Reza, Ropman Polanski, based on Yasmina Reza’s play “God of Carnage”
Cast: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 12/9/11
Opens: December 16, 2011
In trying to make inroads into the broad movie audience, Broadway theater has for decades tossed aside the real purpose of drama and has opted instead to imitate movies. The latest in that unfortunate trend is “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark,” which, instead of showing how even an action-adventure story can employ rich dialogue. substituted a circus atmosphere its title character flying hither and thither above its audience. Some of the Broadway crowd still believe that the falling chandelier in “Phantom of the Opera” is that play’s most memoriable component. When an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” hit the stage, the audience probably recalls most the wheeling of a jalopy onto the stage.
As though to counteract the trend and go to the other extreme, some movies have become theatrical, photographed plays as it were, some recent examples being the adaptation of David Mamet’s play “Oleanna” which was filmed almost completely within a university building. The filmed version of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” takes place almost entirely inside a living room, and “My Dinner with André, though not originally a play, has its action almost completely inside a restaurant.
One cannot be blamed for finding fault with photographed plays since, after all, the movie screen is huge and stage pieces could easily seem static. There’s an exception, however, when the writing is so fierce, witty, smart and funny that the audience is drawn into the action anyway. Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” is an example of a successfully executed photographed play, originating on the stage as “God of Carnage” written by Yasmina Reza–who co-write the screenplay for this new venture. Though not as overwhelming in emotion as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” which still stands as perhaps the best example of the trashing of marriage or at least of the concept of “couples,” “Carnage” boasts a terrific ensemble performance by four diverse actors, one of whom hails from Austria while another is from the UK.
Marriage has been under attack for so long now that one wonders what more can be said against it. “Carnage” does not say other than what has already been expressed in books, on the stage, and in personal gossip but Reza and Polanski’s script, with its steadily escalating mayhem (though much of its not credible given the ability of one couple simply to exit the premises), rewards the audience for all of its brief eighty-minute tenure.
The host couple, Michael (John C. Reilly) and his wife Penelope (Jodie Foster) are financially comfortable but in no way enjoy the “class” of their drop-in guests, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and his wife Nancy (Kate Winslet). Michael sells hardware, enough pots and pans to afford a spacious apartment overlooking Brooklyn Bridge Part in that borough’s Dumbo neighborhood. (Pawel Edelman would not likely to filming on location since the last thing director Polanski wants to do is to set foot in the U.S.) Alan is a hotshot lawyer and his wife Nancy is an investment counselor. When Alan and Nancy’s eleven-year-old son strikes Michael and Penelope’s boy with a stick, knocking out two of the latter’s teeth and “disfiguring” him, the stage is set for a lawsuit, but the offended parents are too civilized to take judicial action, instead showing their good graces by trying to smooth out the controversy politely over coffee and portions of apple-pear cobbler. The whole thematic point is to show how superficial, how skin-deep our morality is, how close we come regularly to blowing up with enough fervor to threaten marital relationships and perhaps lead even to violence against our fellow “civilized” neighbors.
First one, then others of the foursome take offense at what is being said about each other’s children. All hell breaks loose, first as a battle of the couples, then as the couples make war on each other, exposing the fragility of their marriage. Though we can accept the commonality of Alan and Nancy, both upper-middle-class and educated, Michael and Penelope simply do not make sense as a couple. Still, by halftime, even Alan and Nancy are fighting tooth-and-nail against each other, particularly as Alan continues to interrupt the conversation by stepping aside to respond to cell-phone calls. All action takes place within a striking set, one that is not large enough to allow for any of the four to “escape” from the arguments, while the final scenes pose an ironic commentary on the whole proceeding. Audience members will have their individual favorites among the performers, with some opting for the urbane Christoph Waltz, who made such a hit as a Nazi officer in “Inglorious Basterds” (my favorite film of 2009) but my own choice is the hilarious, highly talented John C. Reilly.
Rated R. 80 minutes (c) 2011 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+