Synopsis: Two pairs of parents hold a cordial meeting after their sons are involved in a fight, though as their time together progresses, increasingly childish behavior throws the evening into chaos.
Stars: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winsley, Christoph Waltz
Director: Roman Polanski
Running Length: 79 minutes
Random Crew Highlight: Titles – Fred Roz
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: My advice right off the bat is to skip watching the preview for Carnage. It gives away too many moments that are better received as they happen. Having seen the stage version, God of Carnage, and read the source material I knew what was coming which sometimes lessened the impact.
Yasmina Reza’s play was originally written in French and translated to English for its debut in the West End and on Broadway. The Guthrie had a solid production of it last season so I was familiar with this wicked look at bickering adults. The problems I had with the play still exist in the film version, further convincing me that this was material probably not meant to make the transition from stage to screen. In the theater, it was a little easier to buy why one couple didn’t get up and leave when they had the chance. On screen, you keep wondering why Winslet and Waltz don’t high tail it out of there when things continue to disintegrate. There are at least three scenes where they are being walked out, only to retreat back to the apartment to continue bickering.
Even at a 79 minute running time, the film starts to drag in the last 1/3 and our poor actors can’t do much but wait it out. That’s not to say this isn’t a film worth seeing. Polanski thrives on this kind of material and he shoots the film in a fascinating way…positioning his camera above or below or in long shots where all four stars can be seen. There’s not a single shot that feels the same. He doesn’t give them any where to hide and it feels like both couples are under microscope at all times. A very brief opening and closing score by Alexandre Desplat perfectly captures the jungle nature of the events you are about to see.
This new adaptation of Reza’s work inexplicably changes some seemingly innocuous details. Why, for instance change the names of the female characters in the film? Veronica and Annette have become Penelope and Nancy. A central discussion piece in the play is a clafoutis (a French dessert) which in this translation is now a crumble. All small details…but it just struck me as odd that these were the changes thought necessary for the film. Thankfully, most of Reza’s dialogue is still intact with Foster delivering two of my favorite lines. One I can’t repeat for fear of spoiling a great surprise but the other has Foster exclaiming in frustration “I don’t have a sense of humor and I don’t WANT one!” (By the way, for those that have seen the play, the big surprise is still intact and expertly achieved)
With only four characters moving around a small NYC apartment, Polanski had to find actors that audiences would be interested in watching. For the most part, all do good work here though I couldn’t escape recasting the film several times in my head. I would have liked to see Winslet and Foster swap roles as both were playing against type taking on these characters.
It’s not often that everyone on screen is in sync with one another and that creates a dissonance in acting styles that can be off putting. Winslet starts off pretty rough but gets to the good stuff in the last part of the film. On the other hand, Foster owns the first 20 minutes but gradually weakens, much like the woman she is playing. Reilly is the only one that has some consistency throughout while Waltz seems to coast a bit and was the weakest in my view when compared to the other three. When all four are working together in harmony it’s glorious entertainment but these moments can be few and far between.
Take four celebrated actors known for some dark work and a similarly rewarded (though equally infamous) director and you have a film recommended for its uniquely cynical view on parenting and spousal relationships.