Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly
Directed by: Roman Polanski (“The Pianist”)
Written by: Roman Polanski (“The Ghost Writer”) and Yasmina Reza (“Chicas”)
With a title like “Carnage,” even if the weapon of choice is words, one might expect to see some type of intellectual bloodbath. In Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski’s (“The Pianist”) new dark comedy, the dialogue may be sharp at times, but the force behind the jabs is nothing a little Band-Aid wouldn’t fix. As overblown as it is, however, those involved would have you believe they were tossed into a pit of meat cleavers.
Based on the play “God of Carnage” written by Yasmina Reza (the Broadway version starring Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, and Marcia Gay Harden won Best Play at the 2009 Tony Awards), the screenplay — co-written by Polanski and Reza — starts off effortlessly enough before diving into a diatribe of irritating proportions.
Two preteen boys get into a fight at a park in the swankier side of Brooklyn. One of the kids busts the other’s mouth with a big stick (in a less privileged neighborhood it might’ve been a shank or a 9mm). The kids’ parents (Cristoph Waltz and Kate Winslet play Alan and Nancy Cowan; Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play Penelope and Michael Longstreet) decide the best way to remedy the situation is for both couples to meet in person and talk it out. But when their face-to-face goes from civil to sour, the Longstreets and Cowens flash their claws and berate each other on everything from parenting techniques to animal cruelty.
If you enjoy listening to people air their dirty laundry to the point of sick fascination, “Carnage” might produce enough snarky attitude to allow you overlook phony characters at their worst. Maybe that’s the point. Just because I couldn’t relate to these whiny parents who drink expensive Scotch, have out-of-print Oskar Kokoschka books in their bourgeois apartment, and use words like “conciliating” and “upbraided” in everyday conversation, doesn’t meant there aren’t some out there who will. There’s supposed to be an uncomfortable dark humor behind their snobbery, but as the quarreling continues and goes off on tangents, it gets less and less interesting. Despite the consistent rhythm Polanski is able to pull off in this contrived chamber piece, I kept hoping there might be a gas leak somewhere in the kitchen. Get halfway through the 80-minute “Carnage” and you’ll feel like you’ve earned some quiet time.
Now, I admit, I’ve only seen a handful of public theater versions of the play on YouTube, but I’m convinced this is one of those instances where a film adaptation was an ill-fated idea right from the start. Even the simple mechanics of the production don’t make sense in movie form. On stage there is nowhere to run and hide, but in Polanski’s take there are countless moments when the chaos would come to an end if someone just said good-bye and meant it.
“What the hell are we doing here?”Nancy asks well past the point of no return. A better question would’ve been, “How many times have we walked back into this apartment for more coffee?”
While a lot of the material is grating, the performances (even the miscast and sometimes overly-aggressive Foster) are just as proficient as the 11 Oscar nominations and four wins between the foursome would lead you to believe. The standout is Waltz who plays his father character with a menacing twinkle in his eye. He knows how silly all this is, but he’s still waiting for someone else to get the joke. If “Carnage” gets under your skin, however, the last thing you’ll want to figure out is why a cultural comparison between Ivanhoe and John Wayne is supposed to be clever.