This may be a perverse thing to say, but “Carnage” is so entertaining that it weakens its central argument. It plays like Edward Albee’s classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” rewritten by the staff of “Frasier” into something a little less threatening.
A vision of humanity as essentially bestial, one can see why Yasmina Reza’s Tony award-winning play would appeal to Roman Polanski, given the cruelty he’s both endured and perpetrated. I haven’t seen her play, originally titled “God of Carnage,” performed onstage, so I can only judge it via the screenplay of “Carnage,” co-written by Reza and Polanski, which seems like this film’s weakest link.
“Carnage” is a series of escalating shocks, slowly turning darker, that play out in real time on one set. Several critics have suggested it should have been directed by Mike Nichols, who filmed “Woolf” in the ‘60s, though I don’t think he could’ve done much with the material’s underlying sense of despair and mounting fury.
Broker Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet) and her lawyer husband Alan (Christoph Waltz) meet salesman Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) and his writer wife Penelope (Jodie Foster) when the Cowans’ son hits the Longstreets’ son in the street, knocking out two teeth. They resist the urge to sue, instead inviting the Cowans up to their apartment to draft a letter about the legalities of the matter. The Cowans try to leave, but an offer of apple cobbler and coffee turns out to be a trap, keeping them there for an increasingly long period of time. Eventually –– and especially after everyone has had a few drinks –– the argument gets too angry for anyone to back down.
Wisely, Polanski makes no attempt to “open up” Reza’s play. With the exception of two brief scenes of children on a playground, the entire film takes place in one apartment. The set looks quite realistic, with elevated trains passing by the apartment periodically. The film seems to take place in an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood –– probably Park Slope –– but it was filmed in a Parisian studio. Over a quick 80 minutes, Polanski exploits almost every possible camera position in his set.
While David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” also based on a play, confined itself to relatively conservative set-ups, Polanski places his camera and actors all over the set, yet never seems to be indulging in showiness for its own sake.
Reza and Polanski’s screenplay is nominally a comedy, and it’s often quite funny. I particularly liked a sudden moment of gross-out that suggests the Farrelly brothers took over from Polanski. Yet the modulation from comedy to darkness doesn’t really work. The underlying misanthropy of “Carnage” isn’t very convincing.
As a whole, the film’s tone remains too light. The way the film keeps finding excuses for keeping its characters confined to an apartment suggests Luis Buñuel’s “The Exterminating Angel,” but Polanski’s attitude toward the urban bourgeoisie is a lot more simplistic than Buñuel’s mix of scorn and affection.
This becomes most clear in his treatment of Foster’s character, memorably described by critic Michael Sicinski on Twitter as a “fascist Amy Goodman.” Polanski seems to get a kick out of seeing his male characters spiral out of control after having a few drinks. On the other hand, Penelope has nowhere to go but down. Having professed high liberal ideals, she can do nothing but prove herself a hypocrite. The more conservative Alan may not come off that much better, but at least he’s not betraying his stated values. Adjectives like “shrill” are almost always used against women, especially feminists, but they perfectly describe Foster’s performance.
For “Carnage” to seem merely misanthropic, rather than misogynist, all four characters would need to be equally unlikeable.
Polanski likes filming plays, but he doesn’t have the best track record with them: “Death and the Maiden” isn’t going to make anyone forget “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown.” He’s done better work adapting novels. As a director, he brings his full talent to this project, but he can’t transcend material this mediocre.
Directed by Roman Polanski
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens Dec. 16
Angelika Film Center
18 W. Houston at Mercer St.
Lincoln Plaza Cinema
1886 Broadway at 63rd St.
City Cinemas 1,2 & 3
1001 Third Ave. at 60th St.