CARNAGE (2011) – The Review
Since cinema began Hollywood has raided the opposite coast (the Great White Way AKA Broadway) for works to be adapted into big screen blockbusters. Of course we’ve got the old standards by Shakespeare- his plays seem to get a cinema “dusting off ” every few years. The studios seems to have had the biggest box office hits with the Broadway musical (or to be more specific, the musical comedy). Beginning in the early thirties these movie adaptations did brisk business and some garnered lots of acclaim (including such Best Picture Oscar winners as MY FAIR LADY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, OLIVER!, and fairly recently CHICAGO). But before the movies could talk or sing several works of the “legitimate theatre” were adapted to film. Many times the original cast is recruited to preserve their stage performances (like THE MIRACLE WORKER with original stars Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke-both picked up Oscars). Most times the studios will cast established movie stars in these adaptations (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF? is a prime example). This may be the case for director Roman Polanski’s film of Yasmina Reza’s hit play “God of Carnage” (now, shortened to CARNAGE). And quite a cast of movie stars is assembled to play the two couples: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, and Christoph Waltz (four Oscars in that group). This play had a great Broadway run, but does it work as a film?
At the very start Polanski’s tackles one of the criticisms leveled at filmed stage works. He adds a scene outdoors that influences the adult conflicts (this helps “open-up” the play). In a long shot we observe several children (third or fourth grade) on a playground. Soon a verbal stand-down erupts into violence as one boy uses a stick to strike another boy in the face. The next scene takes place later in the home of Penelope (Foster) and Michael (Reilly), the parents of the injured lad. They’re meeting with the parents of the “stick-boy” Alan (Waltz) and Nancy (Winslet) to iron out school statements and medical bills (the boy lost two teeth!). Through the rest of the afternoon over cobbler, coffee, and scotch the friendly get-together dissolves into passive-aggressive one-upmanship, name-calling, and stress-induced nausea. Although Polanski has an end credit outdoor finale, the film suffers from stage claustrophobia. Alan and Nancy make several attempts to leave, but never let the elevator doors close. Several times I wanted to shout, “So leave already!!”. By the end we feel as trapped in this plush apartment as this foursome does. I lost track of how many times Winslet took off and the put on her gloves.
The main interest for most moviegoers will be seeing these four actors have at each other. It seems the men have a better time in it, but this may be more the fault of the play itself. Reilly is the same big, ole’ likeable bear we’ve seen in most of his films as the bathroom fixture wholesaler Michael, who tries to follow his wife’s lead. Unfortunately there’s little sense of danger to him during some of the more heated scenes. Waltz is the standard, boorish, lawyer character who spends much of his screen time loudly talking on his cell phone (He’s taking another call! Enough!). He does get some big laughs as his no-B.S. honesty bursts through all the good-mannered correctness. I hope we’ll get to see Reilly and Waltz team up again in a future flick. Winslet has little to do besides being exasperated with her blase’ hubby and getting green around the gills. Foster may have the most thankless role as the cultured, overly sensitive Penelope who soon loses her patience and civility after trying to deal with the corporate-ladder climbing couple. After they break out the booze she becomes bug-eyed and shrill. Polanski is doing his best with the play, but the end result seems like a superstar charged PBS broadcast “night at the theaah-tre”. There’s a few laughs sprinkled sparsely throughout but not really enough to warrant being stuck in that room with these four.