Why can't Johnny play nice with the other kids in the park? Is he a bullying little monster? Was he goaded into it by some other bullying little monster? Or is he acting out some basic, primal instinct that's still roiling just beneath the fragile surface of human civility? The new Roman Polanski film, Carnage, opts for Door Number Three, exploring at close range (and in often claustrophobic terms) what happens when four apparent grown-ups get together for some polite chit-chat after the son of one couple injures the son of the other couple during an after-school altercation in the park.
The film is adapted from the international stage hit, "Le Dieu du carnage (The God of Carnage)" by playwright Yasmina Reza (who co-wrote the script with Polanski). Produced in countries all over the world since its debut in Zurich in 2006, the play has garnered an impressive batch of accolades, including several Tony nominations on Broadway, and an Olivier Award for Best New Play, in London. A four-character drama (laced with plenty of barbed humor), that occurs in real time in the course of one afternoon in an apartment, it's easy to see why the play is so popular, adaptable as it is to any cosmopolitan setting or culture. Still, viewers may find it a bit short on genuine insight as this uneasy pas de quatre reaches its inevitable, and expected emotional meltdown.
Despite the title, the only actual carnage that occurs is the utter destruction of even the veneer of civil manners in the course of the story. Not right away, of course; at first, the two sets of parents are models of adult restraint and tolerance. Upscale Manhattan urbanites, the Cowans, have been invited to the the New York City apatment of the upper-middle-class Longstreets. Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) is a slick corporate lawyer for a Big Pharma drug company. His chic wife, Nancy (Kate Winslet), is an investment broker. Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) is a down-to-earth hardware salesman, while his wife, Penelope (Jodie Foster), who works in a bookstore, collects rare art books and attaches herself to humanitarian causes, like the genocide in Darfur.
It's justice-minded Penelope who calls the meeting, hoping to ease any potential animosities between the families after the Cowans’ 11-year-old son has hit his schoolmate, the Longstreet's boy, in the face with a stick. (In Polanski's only attempt to open up the stage production, we view this incident from a distance underneath the opening credits; a bunch of kids swarm into a park, words are exchanged after some goofing around, and one boy wields a stick at the other before stalking off.) The Longstreets don't seem to want anything but closure, at first. They don't even ask the Cowans to chip in for thir son's required dental work.
But, similar to the boys' encounter in the park, the Cowans don't quite get away clean; the Longstreets invite them back in for coffee and cobbler, and the harder they all work at polite social discourse, the faster the situation deteriorates. Words like "disfigured," "victim," and "verbal abuse," creep into the conversation. Social, political, gender, and class differences and prejudices rear their ugly heads. Moral judgements are made (particularly involving the fate of the Longstreets’ family hamster), while Alan's non-stop cell phone calls prompt suspicion and ire as he schools his colleagues in various shady ways to avoid liability for a clearly unsafe product.
There are some nastily funny moments throughout, especially when coffee is replaced by Scotch, and the metaphorical gloves come off. All the actors are good; Reilly makes the most of Michael's reactionary wisecracks, but each character has an arc from assumed cordiality to sputtering fury to acidic sarcasm. But while Polanski and Reza make their simple point, there are no surprises in the narrative as they set up their silly straw characters, and then knock them down. Carnage lacks the savage wit and emotional devastation of, say, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It plays more like an indifferent episode of Men Behaving Badly, and it's just about as resonant.
★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, and John C. Reilly.
Written by Yasmina Reza and Roman Polanski.
From the stage play be Yasmina Reza.
Directed by Roman Polanski. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 79 minutes.
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