Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Roman Polanski's adaptation of the award-winning play God of Carnage is technically excellent and often bleakly funny, but it's ultimately unmoving. While one would expect nothing less than carefully executed shots, excellent performances, and tight editing from longtime collaborator Hervé de Luze, the final product feels less like the anxiety-filled nightmares Polanski is famous for than a way for the director to show off his technical talents. Simply put, Polanski phones it in.
There is nothing surprising about Carnage. Although it has the hallmarks of a Polanski film -- the claustrophobia-inducing apartment and hallway that the characters can't escape; the slow unraveling of social niceties -- it never feels like more than a play plopped into a movie. While God of Carnage is clearly an accomplished stage production, Carnage the movie never transcends its roots the way other stage adaptations have in the past.
As two couples on the opposite side of the typical New York parenting spectrum, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, and Christoph Waltz clearly relish every biting line. The Longstreets (Foster and Reilly) are very, very concerned about their son's playground injury at the obviously maniacal hands of the Cowans' son; they invite the Cowans (Winslet and Waltz) over to discuss the fight in detail, even going so far as to write it up in a document. Obviously, this good-neighbor act soon devolves into recriminations and revelations that the Cowans, try as they might, cannot escape. Every time they try and escape the Longstreets, something pulls them back in: a phone call, an invitation for more coffee, an insult that drags them back to the fight.
Reilly and Foster play the kind of intellectual, overly concerned Brooklyn parents that emphasize communication, organic foods, and concern over Darfur over the knowledge that perhaps their injured kid is a bit of a bully himself. It's particularly enjoyable to watch Reilly go from mellow Brooklyn dad to former playground bully, although Foster's transformation from smug intellectual to crying, drunken mess is altogether unsurprising. Winslet and Waltz are an excellent match as two business people who initially seem cold and uncaring but eventually come out looking better -- or at least more honest about themselves -- than their counterparts. While Winslet is perfectly suited to her role as a put-together working mother, Waltz seems out of place, perhaps on purpose, as it's impossible to overlook Polanski's self-mythology as the perennial, possibly amoral outsider. However, the treatises on morality as evidenced by playground squabbles are too easy, especially given that Polanski co-wrote the screenplay. Waltz's character as a lawyer who is constantly on the phone doing damage control for a big pharma company adds a subtext to the endless arguing over right and wrong, power and the powerless, but again, it's almost too easy.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Carnage is full of strange but humorous one-liners that the actors toss off easily, and absurd moments that linger, especially as the characters get drunker and more vicious. Foster possibly has the best line in the entire movie; when Michael implores Penelope not to have a drink because it's bad for her, she seethes, "Drinking is great for me!" These theatrical flourishes never develop into anything deeper, though. The adults throw things, insult each other (including their spouses), change alliances constantly, and exhaust each other and the viewer. Instead of being haunted by the sublimely creepy close quarters of Rosemary's Baby or Repulsion, we're just as tired of these couples as they are of themselves by the end.
It's obvious that the actors threw themselves into the roles 100 percent. The compulsive attention to detail and layout of the apartment is impressive, especially given how the actors move easily from room to room. (Of course, one wonders how bohos like Penelope and Michael could afford such digs, but that's Hollywood.) Each shot is carefully framed, and the score by Alexandre Desplat is on point. When all is said and done, Carnage would be an accomplishment for a lesser writer and director. However, when the centerpiece of your movie is Kate Winslet violently vomiting all over coffee table art books and the endless cleaning up of vomit and discussion of how to rid said books of the stain and stench of vomit, you might have a problem.