REVIEW: Brisk, Disciplined Carnage Is Good — Not Great — Polanski
In Roman Polanski's Carnage, two couples square off in a 4-way -- or is it a 48-way? -- skirmish involving parenting issues, class resentment, the self-centered nature of our society, and both sexual politics and the other kind. This is a drawing-room comedy set in what just may be one of the outer circles of hell: The well-appointed (but just shabby enough) Brooklyn apartment of a persnickety couple who advertise their liberal ideals perhaps more obviously than they practice them. These two insufferable individuals are meeting with a matched set of same, the perhaps better-heeled (and equally smug) parents of a boy who struck their son with a stick, knocking out a tooth or two in the process. By the time each of these mini-nightmare characters has had a swing at each of the others -- and by the time one of them has vomited on a valuable art book -- the permutations of animosity and indignation have multiplied into an algebraic equation of headachey proportions.
Is it entertainment? Is it satire? Is it art? It's probably a little of all three, and yet ultimately not quite enough of any. Based on Yasmina Reza's extremely popular play God of Carnage, the picture is a brisk, disciplined exercise: For the most part the performances are precise and cutting, and the writing has a sharpness that we don't often see in contemporary movies (or in contemporary theater, for that matter). Maybe the only thing really wrong with Carnage is that it was directed by Roman Polanski, one of the greatest and most divisive of living directors. And while Carnage is adequate Polanski, it isn't great Polanski.
John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster play Michael and Penelope, the parents of the presumably wronged child. They've invited Alan and Nancy (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) to their home to broker some sort of peace not just between the boys but between themselves. The passive-aggressive nature of the exercise is clear from the first scene: The two couples hover near a computer screen as Penelope attempts to lay out on exactly what happened that day and what injuries were suffered. The wording of the document becomes a mini lightning rod -- was the aggressor "armed with" a stick, or was he just carrying one? -- and from there, the two couples begin locking into multiple overlapping conflicts.
Michael is a home-goods salesman (his business is based out of Queens), and Penelope is a sort-of writer who, she informs her guests with mock-casual modesty, is working on a book about Darfur. Waltz's Alan is a cell-phone-brandishing attorney (some of you copy editors out there will immediately want to change that to "lawyer," but that would be too lowly and generic a title for Alan to accept). And Winslet's Nancy is an investment banker: You can see from her pearls and fleshtone stockings that she follows all the rules even when she doesn't have to.
Before long, the feelings of these half-repressed, half-self-satisfied individuals are flowing freely, maybe a little too freely. The scope of their conversation covers, but is not limited to, interspousal animosity over domestic responsibilities, male aggression and the women who roll their eyes at it, the careless raising of menace-to-society children, the cruel abandonment of a hamster and the revelation that if you know where to look, you can find tulips that have been flown in directly from Holland, only $20 a bunch. There are accusations and caustic scoldings; there's much airing of dirty laundry. And beneath the nearly transparent membrane formed by these criss-crossing, funny-vicious little diatribes, you can practically see the throbbing veins of class consciousness.
Reza's dialogue is perceptive to the point of being wicked. The material doesn't ask you to like these characters. Instead, its point of contact is the wince of recognition. Surely, neither you nor I possess any of the pettiness or self-righteousness on display here, but naturally, we know plenty of people who do. And the production design, by Dean Tavoularis, hits every note with a pitch-perfect ping. If you know anything about Manhattan-area real estate (or even if you don't), your eyes are likely to light immediately on the pile of dried wood stacked next to the hearth -- that "Working FP" sure doesn't come cheap. (Alan and Nancy probably have more money, but no one here is exactly hurting.)
The actors sink their teeth into the material, and the modest pleasures of Carnage consist mostly of watching them experience the joy of biting deep. But even that bucket of fun has its limits. Foster is scarily spot-on in the movie's early scenes, but toward the end, she lets the tendons in her neck do all the acting for her -- they don't have all that much to say. Intentionally or otherwise, Waltz seems to be channeling Christopher Walken with his diction; it comes off as an affectation even if it's not meant to be. Reilly channels the subterranean menace that often lies beneath the surface of affable boobs; "I am a short-tempered son-of-a-bitch!" he bellows in one scene, thrilled with the alleged bravery of his own catharsis. Winslet may be the best of all, or at least she's the most subtle: Her Nancy is the character who's cagiest about putting her cards on the table (though in the movie's most memorable scene, she certainly puts something else on that table).
Polanski knows what he's doing here: With Carnage he offers us a bitter little truffle, an elegant treat to savor even if we don't particularly like it. The craftsmanship is obvious -- there's no flashiness here, just lots of micro-control. But the picture is less artistic than it is artisinal. It's easy enough to appreciate Carnage while you're watching it. It just doesn't leave you with much other than the relief of finally being able to escape these unbearable individuals, each of whom, to paraphrase Jean Renoir's bitter-tender observation, has his or her reasons.
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