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Carnage

I’m finding it difficult to work up much enthusiasm for Roman Polanski’s latest—an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s Tony and Olivier Award winning play, “God of Carnage”. Obviously, as a stage piece it garnered much love on both sides of the pond. But it doesn’t work on the big screen, where everything is blown up to unnatural proportions. Polanski, normally a virtuoso at mining gold out of claustrophobic spaces(“Repulsion”, “The Tenant”), uncharacteristically comes up short in this mostly one room production. He also falls victim to a common failing in this kind of boards-to-celluloid transfer—it feels stagey and overbaked. Even the best of these attempts tend to be glaringly overt at times.               What makes it a particular shame this time around is that all of the ingredients were in place for a gourmet meal. I mean, what a CAST! Along with Polanski’s proven pedigree, you have 3 Oscar-winning performers and an Oscar-nominee(John C. Reilly—too often relegated to second tier). Fantastic actors all, with each given at least a couple of moments to shine even here. I was very excited when I first read that Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster would portray the women in this—I often hold both up as being among our finest current screen actresses. But alas, they come off as entirely too-fussy and mannered. Foster’s role is especially egregious—too readily relegating her to bleeding-heart liberal caricature with all of its platitudes and self-righteousness intact. Certainly, Polanski is too savvy to not realize the obviousness of this conceit, but Jodie is far too shrill and unsympathetic to come off well in this setting. Her usual tics and mannerisms become grotesque under these conditions. Winslet fares slightly better, if only because her set role isn’t expected to be quite as flamboyant. That is until a mid-film “cookie-tossing” scene that manages to get the characters to hit “reset” for a juncture.               The plot? Two sets of parents meet to discuss and eventually analyze a playground incident between their respective 11-year-olds that involves the striking of one with a stick that leads to 2 lost teeth. The parents of the hittee(Foster and Reilly)invite the folks of the hitter(Winslet and Christoph Waltz)to their home, a peace-making gesture that(of course)rapidly goes awry. Rather quickly(the film clocks in at a scant 80 minutes), assurances of “no big deal” and “boys will be boys” becomes a flurry of who’s at fault and whether or not nerve damage will lead to a route canal. More than once, the characters of Nancy and Alan Cowan, are seconds away from escape, as they hustle towards the building’s elevator when things become too heated. Yet each time they are wooed back by the apologetic Penelope and Michael Longstreet for things like coffee and cobbler—and eventually some very fine Scotch(no bonus prize for predicting where that avenue leads matters). Throughout the film’s running time, Christoph Waltz’ Alan(a lawyer representing a pharmaceutical firm)is constantly on his cell phone with business chats. The intrusive rings are plentiful enough to make the gadget a fifth character, whose apparent demolition and comical resurrection is making some kind of blatant statement about communication or the lack of same. Ho-hum. It’s all rather too blatant—Polanski has been both subtler and smoother. Besides the one-set foursome(and a quick cameo from Roman himself as a neighbor behind a half-closed door), a long-shot framing device is used that illustrates the children’s violent episode and a credits-run shot that chronicles its culmination. Again, it’s all rather simple and obvious, and you’ll find yourself wondering why you chose to spend an hour plus with these people in the first place.               Btw, the men come off a bit better–especially Waltz as the can’t-escape-his-job lawyer. Christoph manages to plumb some slow-burns and quieter moments from his portrayal—although I’m more apt to credit the playwright with that victory than the actor himself. Still, Waltz walks that tightrope adroitly. And I can’t help but admire the invaluable Mr. Reilly(so fantastic in 2011’s underseen, “Cedar Rapids”). His typical laid-back, borderline doofus, this time laced with a dollop of overcompensation, made all the more powerful with his eventual call of “bullshit”. All of this sounds much better to me as I’m writing it, but it never coalesces into anything worthwhile. It’s not a complete wash-out with talent this rich, and Polanski keeps that pace speeding along at a pretty good clip. But when all is said and done it fails to deflect the label of “shoulda been better”. And it should of been.           Grade:  C

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2 comments on “Carnage

  1. With that cast you could usually just hand them some take-out menus and a manual for an old toaster over and you’d have gold. What a shame.

    • You would think that would be the case, Brian. Some reviewers were fond of this, so I don’t think Polanski has lost it. In fact, his 2010 release, “The Ghost Writer” was solid. Maybe “Carnage” was a case of TOO much talent? I can buy that scenario, somewhat. ML

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