By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
The play’s premise involves a boy losing two teeth. The film version loses even more.
Carnage is a dialogue-driven dark comedy of manners, based on French playwright Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning 2009 play, “God of Carnage,” about two sets of parents who meet to discuss the playground altercation that their tween sons have recently gotten into, in which one boy hit the other with a stick, resulting in the loss of two teeth. The adults hope that they can settle their differences in a more mature manner than their children did.
So the parents of the stick-wielder, Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), stop in at the well-appointed Brooklyn apartment of the victim’s mom and dad, Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) to discuss the incident, figure out what to do about it, and find a way to put it behind them.
Easier said than done.
Their conversation begins politely enough, but the veneer of civilization strips away as the minutes pass, the resentments surface, the voices get louder, and the drinks get consumed.
Before long, contentiousness and aggressiveness take over, the bickering becomes more vicious and the posturing more pronounced, animalistic impulses emerge from their hiding places, and this feeble attempt at conflict resolution heads directly south.
In directing the film adaptation, the prodigiously accomplished Roman Polanski (The Pianist, Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, The Ghostwriter), who co-wrote the screenplay with Reza, embraces the confinement of the play instead of opening it up cinematically.
But the inherent claustrophobia of the premise, which may have contributed a dose of dramatic tension to the play, works against the authenticity of the film.
If we could imagine the lives of these four characters outside that room and at a different time, we would be a lot more willing to go with the narrative, such as it is. But, alas, we never feel the three-dimensionality of any of the four characters.
The bickering quartet was played on the Broadway stage by James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, and Hope Davis. Their big-screen equivalents have Oscar credentials (Winslet, Foster, and Waltz are Academy Award winners, Reilly a nominee), but Polanksi never gets them to the point where we stop noticing the ACTING.
Foster, looking completely uncomfortable, overplays principled Penelope’s intense uptightness and Reilly never quite brings his affable, blue-collar hardware salesman, Michael, into focus. Faring somewhat better are the yuppies — Waltz’s distracted, cynical Big Pharma lawyer, Alan, and Winslet’s queasy-stomached investment broker, Nancy.
Nonetheless, most of what we feel watching this level of acting talent, not on their game, is disappointment.
Not all the accommodations of the translated French-to-English script are sufficiently smooth and authoritative, but we can live with them.
However, what Polanski and Reza have absolutely failed to do is make the Cowans’ inability to leave the hosting Longstreets’ apartment, even though they want to, in any way convincing. We may buy the symbolic concept that they’re trapped there — that there’s No Exit — but we never for a second believe the reality of the “plot” as it unfolds. Their frequent, synthetic attempts to leave, each one taking them yet a wee bit closer to the elevator, become laughable and kill off whatever credibility has been built up to that point — which isn’t much anyway.
It’s somewhat easier to buy at least some of the arbitrary behavior if we look at Carnage as a purely absurdist comedy, which is not terribly far off the mark.
But even from that vantage point, we want out.
That’s a big part of the reason why the film feels long despite its scant 79-minute running time.
So we’ll discuss 2 stars out of 4 for the stagy and artificial Carnage, a film based on a play that doesn’t quite play.