Friday, November 18, 2011


The darkly comedic morality play Carnage, based on the award winning play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza is an interesting case study of misguided but obvious talent.  The film is directed by Roman Polanski, fresh off his immaculately crafted suspense film The Ghost Writer and stars Jodie Foster, John C. Rielly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz and is adapted from a hit play.  It's positively dripping with prestige and one can easily understand why such a property would attract such a heavy roster of top drawer talent, even for those (like myself) who haven't seen the original source material.  The plot is simple, but with a juicy premise-- four characters, two couples dispensing witty, savage and often feverishly brutal wordplay at one another while trapped in an apartment over a squabble that occurred between the two couples young children.  The material itself almost appears to be channeling a sort of 21th century equivalent of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with all characters, more or less awful, biting and chewing the scenery for moral higher standing-- they're a loathsome bunch, but one gets the sense in the right hands this could have been a tightly wound funhouse of grown-ups acting like children.  The sense immediately once the credit rolled, at least to this viewer, was, what happened?

On paper, Mr. Polanski seems an ideal choice for Carnage, with it's tight, in real time claustrophobia and his penchant for presenting morally shifty characters with such control and elegance.  He co-wrote the screenplay with Reza, and while lots of the dialogue stings, it still comes across strangely flat and of little consequence-- almost like a bullying child; there's anger and aggression, but it inevitably means very little.  And even at an ultra trim 79 minutes, it feels like a very long meeting of these two couples.  What's interesting is the offbeat and incompatible casting choices-- the four co-leads are all extraordinarily gifted in their own right, and are fully committed to the zesty stings they relay on one another, but none of them quite mesh-- it's as though each performer is in a different film of their own; which again might have been interesting had that been the intent.  The action starts at a neighborhood park with seemingly normal boys being boys mayhem, that is until one boy is attacked with a stick resulting in a busted lip and two missing teeth.  The real action begins when the parents of these boys meet to discuss the events, and a hopeful resolution of the situation, which culminates in ugly, childish behavior for all parties and concludes with drunken brandishing of insults.  The guilty fun of the premise is tested early on as the pacing and energy of Carnage seems to run on multiple tracks that Polanski, nor the gifted ensemble, appear to have a steady hand in controlling-- is this a slapsticky romp, moral dramedy of higher meaning, a meandering meditation of good people gone wrong, or good marriages gone to hell.  It's manic, then dithering, then manic again...until it eventually flat lines.

The hard thing to discount, or easily dismiss is the varied and all over the map actions taken by the actors.  It would be difficult to call Carnage a total waste, because the performances are so bizarrely interesting.  Foster plays Penelope, the mother of the son injured in the standoff, a fussy, pointed, culturally and politically aware writer (she's writing a book about Darfur for god's sake) trying, at first at least, to lead the show with a preternatural common sense.  That practicality goes downhill quickly as the ticking emotional time bomb that is the nature of character has such a pointed, almost intellectually stake in being the moral compass of the piece.  At first overly mannered, then overly hammy, Foster never quite seems to quite get her character, but nonetheless throws everything in the air in such a manic way that whatever she's doing, it's always interesting.  Like watching a car wreck, it's difficult to turn away and whether it stems from a nervousness at comedy, her performance is still a fascinating, if misguided, collection of tics.  However, just as with the rest of the film, just as her character should be building into a crescendo of emotion, it slowly starts to disappear.

Penelope's husband is Michael, played by John C. Rielly.  At first presented as an easy-going everyman schlep, and embodied by one of the few genuine marketable actors who specializes in such.  Seemingly cordial and agreeable...he pounces on the opposing couple long after his wife does-- he offers them cobbler and booze.  The weakest part of the film is either the character as written or the performance Rielly gives, not because he's particularly bad (he's quite good, and sports nearly as many vicious lines as his counterparts), it's that he feels the most disconnected character in the piece, the most unformed, and the hardest character to fully peg down.  At times he appears to be most nihilistic; others the most humane-- the only modulation of Michael throughout the film is that his voice goes up in volume as the film goes on.

Kate Winslet plays Nancy, the mother of the boy with a stick; an icy upper crust investment banker.  Proper and poised at the start, but also a bit cold, she, like Penelope, at first thinks the most pragmatically, only to end the meeting having thrown up twice (possibly due to bad cobbler) and drinking up a storm to relieve her hostility and anger at both Michael and Penelope and her own husband, Alan (Waltz.)  Like Foster, Winslet is completely manic and all over the place in her characterization, but it reads a bit differently-- she seems to get the fun and be in on the joke a tad more, distilling insults with a quick aplomb and perhaps relishing the naughty wordplay games.  It's a shame that towards the end, either by design of the screenplay or the performance, that Nancy comes across somewhat pathetic and wretched.  At once trying to be a protective mother, while acknowledging her slimy husband, Nancy lunges into girls behaving badly simplicity.  However, it's still a fascinating portrayal because of her unmitigated commitment.

Waltz rounds out the loathsome foursome as a hot shot attorney with little interest in being there-- he spends most of the film on his cell phone.  But the cool, fiercely charisma of the actor breathes life into a character that's the easiest to hate, at least initially.  His demeanor is always calm, even while uttering destructive invectives-- as if he knows that none of them will ever quite be able to shake him, and it's true.  Alan is the immoral center of the group that shakes everyone up to the point of unleashing such aggression and anger, calling out the sinner in the seemingly morally upstanding person.  And while his graceful precision and mastery of the babbling and vicious dialogue comes off the most sincere, there's the problem: that the four all together never quite work out a way to meet somewhere in the middle-- they're all disjointed characters in need of a center.  C+

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