Is Roman Polanski really the best guy to deliver a lecture about bad parenting?
Directed by Roman Polanski
Cast: Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly
The French play God of Carnage became the toast of Broadway in 2009 when it hit the Great White Way with high-wattage film actors Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden in the lead roles. All four actors ended up nominated for Tony Awards, and the production became one of the longest-running stage plays of the 2000s. Now infamous director Roman Polanski takes a stab at a movie version starring Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster. That’s hardly what you’d call a step down in quality from the stage version. But what soars on a stage doesn’t always fly on a movie screen.
Like the stage play, Carnage (as it’s now been truncated for movie marquees) is a high-tone, acid-witted examination of what happens when the boundaries of polite society are whittled away. The story concerns the parents of Ethan and Zachary, two preteen boys who got into a school-yard scrap. Zach hit Ethan with a stick and broke two of his teeth. As recounted under the opening credits, this catalytic fight lasts all of about five seconds. The repercussions, however, resonate for considerably longer. Alan and Nancy Cowan (Waltz and Winslet) are the uptight, yuppified parents of Zach, “the bully.” Michael and Penelope Longstreet (Reilly and Foster) are the politically correct, working-class parents of Ethan, “the victim.” The four have gathered together at the Longstreets’ small Brooklyn apartment to hash out the aftereffects of the fight. Alan and Nancy have agreed to pay for Ethan’s dental work and make their son apologize. Everything, it seems, is fine and dandy. Except that Carnage simply won’t allow its characters to escape the confines of the setting. Excuse after excuse is invented to keep the Cowans from exiting. By the end, insults are flying like rabid bats. And yet nobody thinks to just get the hell up and leave.
Early on, Nancy tells the Longstreets, “We’re very touched by how generous you’re being instead of making things worse. So many parents act like children themselves.” Hmm. Can you sense a 10-ton moral coming? Over the course of the painfully drawn-out evening, the parents’ civilized facades begin to erode and they start acting like—surprise, surprise!—bratty little schoolchildren. On stage, there’s no doubt that God of Carnage is an actor’s best friend. Like perennial stage faves Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it’s the sort of old-fashioned four-hander that allows actors the opportunity to scream all sorts of horrible things at one another. In person, that can be a powerful thing. On screen, though, it’s just four people in a single room yelling.
The actors are skillful enough playing nasty, irritating and ultimately awful people. Workaholic lawyer Mr. Cowan spends the entire time barking orders into his cell phone. Brittle investment banker Mrs. Cowan pukes all over the coffee table. Wannabe writer Mrs. Longstreet sanctimoniously lectures everyone within earshot. And plumbing salesman Mr. Longstreet makes increasingly racist and callow remarks. (The guy hates hamsters, for crying out loud.) If you’re keeping score, Waltz and Winslet come out looking the best, if only because their characters are slightly more believably written than either of the Longstreets. But the audience is never less than fully aware that the cutting dialogue and the pressure-cooker setting have all been carefully (you might say callously) constructed to peel away the polite behavior of modern man to reveal the primitive savage beneath. This is 2012. Isn’t that what we have “The Real World,” “Big Brother,” “The Bachelor” and “Jersey Shore” for?
If Carnage is a comedy, Polanski seems to have missed it. He moves briskly for an old man, staging the entire catastrophic social experiment in a breathless 79 minutes. But the air quickly rushes out of the room, turning the cynical, discomfiting wit of the stage play into smug, atonal mockery. In a way, the man who gave us such claustrophobic, urban-angsty horror flicks as Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant would seem like the perfect man to helm this project. But it’s a hopelessly stage-bound tale that can’t quite survive inflation to the big screen. Maybe if they’d shot it in 3D. Or not.
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