All of our 2011 New York Film Festival coverage is here.
Ultimately, it shouldn’t be relevant whether Roman Polanski’s adaptation of “Carnage” is equal to or better than the play it was based on, yet it feels like the comparison goes a long way to explaining why the film version doesn’t pack the punch it should. Which isn’t to say the screen redux co-penned by its original author Yasmina Reza is without its merits, but in shedding the “God” part of the title, the material lost the perfection that came with it.
As originally staged, “God of Carnage” wasn’t necessarily a flawless drama, but it was a perfect piece of theater, its four central actors unable to leave the single setting of a minimalist apartment where every prop within it became a plot point and loyalties shifted fluidly between the characters so that the audience was always a bit off-balance and by extension, doubly invested. While the plot was announced upfront of two married couples brought together by an incident between their sons – one hits the other with a stick, knocking the other's two incisors out on a school playground – the details were slowly teased out over time to illuminate the decimation of all civility between the quartet.
The film version of “Carnage” opens with the scene of the children you never saw in the stage version as one smacks the other near a basketball court in a park, which abruptly leads into what was the first scene of the play where the parents are in front of a computer agreeing to a letter about their respective boys’ actions. Not only does the new opening rob what follows of the ambiguity that didn’t allow an audience to immediately take sides, but unless I missed something, it also makes the meeting of Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) and Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) seemingly unnecessary because why would they draft such a letter if the kids weren’t in school? Polanski and Reza’s screenplay rarely answers that question throughout of why these four people who come to loathe each other stay in the same room when the medium of film offers them a place to leave that the stage didn’t, with practical solutions such as Alan’s constantly ringing cellphone losing reception in the elevator or multiple offers of coffee feeling like hollow excuses to argue some more.
The only thing that can’t be argued is that Polanski has brought a fine cast together to do the bickering, though they too have lost a dimension because of how the film version unfolds. My interest piqued during the film’s introduction at the New York Film Festival when fest director Richard Pena described “Carnage” as a film about marriage, which it was in its original incarnation, yet that was only one of the sacred cows Reza wanted to tackle as the play took on moral righteousness, liberal guilt, and the symbiotic relationship of parents and children. Those things are all touched upon in Polanski’s film, but they take a backseat to what becomes a battle of the sexes where oddly unlike the play, the women never have equal power as the men, let alone the greater strength they possessed on stage.
The role of Penelope, once so resilient and commandeering in the hands of Marcia Gay Harden, feels more simpering and submissive in Jodie Foster’s, representing the warm heart of the film rather than the black soul that made the play so much wicked fun. Likewise, Waltz’s version of Alan Cowan, a pharmaceutical lawyer who cares far more about the spin of a problematic drug than the fate of the Longstreets’ son (or his own, for that matter), takes control of the story early and even when he appears to have lost it once his cell phone is momentarily disabled, he doesn’t lose an ounce of confidence in the same way either Penelope or his own wife Nancy does throughout the film. He shares this trait with Reilly’s easily amused Michael, leading the two to break out cigars. It also doesn’t help that Winslet inhabits the slow-simmering role of Nancy that boiled over spectacularly in the play’s two most demonstrative moments, but are slightly less effective when they’re not performed live. The imbalance isn’t the fault of the actors, who keep the ball up in the air for as long as possible, yet the fact the ball mostly goes only in two directions rather than four is something worth mourning.
Still, there’s plenty of tart-tongued dialogue to enjoy as the quartet ruminates on subjects ranging from whether cobbler can be considered pie or cake to the confinement of tradition and Polanski very well could’ve accomplished the best possible version of the material onscreen, with brilliant blocking and acute cinematography from Pawel Edelman. Though the script awkwardly careens in places from one scene to the next, “Carnage” visually never feels stagey, expertly capturing the diametrically opposed emotions of dueling characters within a scene often in a single frame. However, that precision may ultimately be the undoing of “Carnage,” which for all the messiness its title implies is a bit too pat. When Nancy tells the group late in the film, “This is getting to be like, who cares?”, it may just be that the film’s sharpest observation is a self-reflexive one.
"Carnage" opens in limited release on December 16th via Sony Pictures Classics.