Some plays are so insightful, so vivid and so entertaining that they demand to be turned into films. Or so some producers must think. Unfortunately, what works in the theatre may not always work in the cinema.
Such is the case with Carnage. I suspect the Tony Award-winning play by Yasmina Reza may be far more hard-hitting and hilarious than its cinematic counterpart. Nevertheless, while it may not be as vicious as it tries to be, Roman Polanski’s Carnage has enough dark humour and mischievousness to make up for whatever was lost in translation. It’s a film about facades and how a deep selfishness exists under the guise of Western politeness and political correctness. It’s also a showcase for its all-star cast: Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly.
One day after school, the son of Nancy (Winslet) and Alan (Waltz) Cowan hits the son of Penelope (Foster) and Michael Longstreet (Reilly) with a stick, knocking two of his incisors out. In order to clear up things between their sons, the Cowans and the Longstreets, being good, fair-minded Western liberals, meet at the Longstreets’ apartment in the middle of the afternoon in order to settle affairs as such good, fair-minded people are wont to do.
Of course, pretences only last so long. A word here; a phrase there — eventually the vitriol lurking just beneath the surface of bourgeois respectability seeps out and these supposedly good, fair-minded parents find themselves verbally attacking each other.
As a way to break the ice and clear up the tension, Michael mentions that he got rid of his daughter’s hamster that day, dumping the animal onto the streets of New York City. Nancy is horrified that Michael intended the anecdote to be humorous. Michael’s anecdote leads to thinly veiled hostility on Nancy’s part. This is an example of how a simple parental meeting over a schoolyard disagreement between their sons turns into a passive-aggressive frenzy where everyone’s grievances are erred.
Oh, and there’s a fixation on cobbler. Penelope makes a mean apple and pear cobbler, as Michael constantly insists, and Nancy and Alan just have to try some. Alan wolfs it down, being the kind of cellphone-attached powerbroker who never gets a chance to enjoy meals. Nancy also devours it, but it doesn’t sit well with her, and a little warm Coca-Cola only aggravates her stomach. Everything in Carnage plays like a farce, but like all good farces, there is more than a hint of reality in it.
The entire film takes place in the Longstreets’ apartment and hallway. Polanski does nothing to expand the setting of the play, beyond showing the Cowan and Longstreet boys in the park during the opening and closing credits. His cinematography and editing are immaculate, at the least, and the film is never visually boring, but the filmmaking needs do little more than let the actors run the gamut of their expressions.
As a film built on the strength of its cast, the movie works quite well. Winslet and Waltz, especially, thrive in their roles. There are few faces as emotive as Kate Winslet’s, and in the early moments of the film, her subtle expressions do much to reveal the discomfort of the situation. Waltz is dynamite as a character who finds the whole situation ludicrous and more-than-a-little humourous. His character may not be given as many emotions to play as Winslet or Foster, but he really sells the performance.
Foster and Reilly are also quite good, for the most part, although their performances seem to descend into comical grotesques near the film’s end. All of the actors must have jumped at the chance to play in this film. It offers them the opportunity to run through most every emotion conceivable all in the space of 80 minutes, and is quite evenly focused on all four of them.
Carnage’s most noticeable and unfortunate problem is that it seems better suited to the stage. As a theatrical performance, the laughs would come faster, the actors would seem more vivid and the whole enterprise would be more immediate and vicious.
There is nothing in Carnage that really demands it be a film. Still, as an indictment of the facades of the Western upper-middle class, the film still cuts deep and is funnier and more nuanced than most schlock that passes for comedy these days.