by Warren Curry
Just before sitting down to write this review, I decided to go online and watch the trailer for “Carnage,” the new film from 78-year-old Roman Polanski. It’s an exceptional trailer — one that promises snappy dialogue, great chemistry among a stellar cast and cruelly quirky characters. To a certain degree, the film delivers the aforementioned qualities — but in a much lower dosage than the trailer would lead you to believe.
Based on Yasmina Reza’s play “God of Carnage” (the playwright shares screenplay credit with Polanski), which I have never seen, Polanski’s adaptation of the work doesn’t make for an engaging translation to the screen. Of course, the director has previously worked well using minimal locations (”The Tenant” and “The Pianist” come to mind), but those films don’t attempt to juggle the bombastic personalities featured here. The four characters this film examines, two married, upper crust New York City couples, are more grating than humorous, partially because the director apparently forgot to inform his actors (especially the histrionic Jodie Foster) that it wasn’t necessary to project to the last row of the balcony.
The point of “Carnage” is to look at how ostensibly civilized people can become completely unhinged when they don’t get their way. Agreeing to disagree is not the strong suit of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Foster, John C. Reilly) or their adversaries Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz). These people have come together in the aftermath of a fight between their two young sons on a school playground, which left the Longstreet’s kid with injuries, the severity of which is a primary topic of debate. At first, the Longstreets seem like the good, earnest couple trying to find a resolution that benefits everyone, while the Cowans come across as the cold power couple — she’s an investment broker, he’s a lawyer — who are solely interested in their own fortune and want the meeting to end as soon as possible.
Taking place in real time during an afternoon in the Longstreet’s well-groomed apartment, the situation goes from mildly uncomfortable to noticeably tense to completely combative in less than an hour and a half. The couples fight with each other and also themselves, spitting out plenty of vitriolic comments and, in one memorable moment, Nancy Cowan vomits up a piece of cobbler that didn’t sit particularly well in her stomach. The actors don’t lack for energy, but because Polanski does little to rein them in, the people in the film end up as less than compelling caricatures.
Of course, what works well on stage (the Broadway production starred an equally big name cast of James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis) doesn’t always transfer to film, and it’s easy to believe that the natural artificiality of a stage play would suit these characters and their stylized dialogue better. John C. Reilly, whose character begins as the voice of reason before taking a darker turn, does the most credible job here, and Christoph Waltz is actually toned down compared to his scenery chewing, and Oscar-winning, performance in “Inglourious Basterds.” This type of material makes for an actors’ playground and, unfortunately, Polanski lets his cast run a bit too wild.
I’m also left with the feeling that this film’s primary audience will be the people it’s attempting to skewer. It’s not difficult to envision privileged urbanites in cities across America guffawing at every exaggerated barb, turning to their better halves and then nodding in agreement that they too are capable of exhibiting such “edgy” behavior (and if you’re lucky, they may actually wait until the movie ends before tweeting about it on their iPhones). There’s hardly a moment in the film that’s not obviously self-aware.
Regrettably, this feels like a novelty piece for all involved, but thinking of their collective resumes, it’s easy to give them a pass for this misstep.
Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly
Rated R, 80 minutes
(Sony Pictures Classics. Opens in New York City and Los Angeles December 16, 2011.)