French playwright Yasmina Reza’s much lauded play God of Carnage is given the star treatment in this frequently amusing comedy-drama by director Roman Polanski. Two sets of parents come together in a Brooklyn apartment to address a fight their respective boys had on the playground that day. Their collective goal is to find an amiable solution. The cast is minimal: Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly are the Longstreets, Penelope and Michael. As the parents of injured son Ethan, they invite Nancy and Alan Cowan, into their home. They’re portrayed by Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz who are invited to account for the injury for which their son Zachary was responsible. “A comedy of manners…without the manners” proclaimed the poster for the play. Etiquette is the topic at hand, but as we soon see, it‘s far from the result.

To enjoy Reza’s theater piece one must take delight in the interplay between the four characters. Simple and crisp, the repartee is fun to see. Their discussion centers on child rearing, but it touches upon a myriad of topics. At first the chitchat is quaint in it’s civility. Listen to Penelope politely brag about her apple and pear cobbler to Nancy who feigns inertest in the recipe. But slowly the opinions turn more honest. Their initially polite interaction gradually deteriorates into pandemonium, flinging insults and engaging in behavior even more childish than their sons’ altercation. A discovery of their pet names for each other becomes mocking. Alan’s constant cell phone conferences is an irritant. Nancy berates Michael for releasing a domesticated hamster into the unprotected wild. It’s the kind of discourse only uppity New Yorkers could have. It’s smugly gratifying to witness their politically correct facade devolve into their true despicable nature over a brisk 79 minutes.

But other than their own moral collapse, not much happens. There is a running gag where the Cowan’s attempt to leave many times throughout the course of their visit, but are never quite able to do so. (Oh and an art book about Oskar Kokoschka is inadvertedly ruined ) But for the most part, there are no events. Dialogue IS the story. It’s a narrative where the introduction of an 18 year old bottle of scotch sets the stage for the climax of the picture. In a play simply built simply around a conversation in a room, I suppose there’s something to be said for a lack of subtlety. On Broadway, Marcia Gay Harden was the sole actor to win a Tony for her portrayal, even though the entire cast was nominated. It’s the showiest role and it’s interpreted here by Jodi Foster. She tries to seize the spotlight with her scenery chewing, histrionic performance. However I was much more impressed by Kate Winslet. She nicely underplays as the WASP-y upper class mom who is the “manager” of her husband’s wealth.

Eavesdropping on the intimate conversation of these four acting greats is worth a look.  To say the movie is stagy is to miss the point. It’s supposed to be a claustrophobic, pressure cooker in a tastefully decorated living room. However this is the sort of production that benefits from the immediacy of a live performance. A theatrical film makes demands on the viewer that actually hurt the story’s theater roots.  These sorts of intellectual pieces unfold much better on a small TV screen where the sitcom like setup is more enjoyable. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an obvious inspiration. Carnage is interesting, but the script doesn’t achieve anything close to the truly biting commentary of that classic. We keep waiting for a defining moment that never arrives and ultimately has nothing really profound to say. At least these actors ensure that things are always entertaining. The disintegration of the cordial facades of the bourgeoisie into chaos is still a consistent watch.

6 Responses to “Carnage”

  1. Having seen it twice on my computer and once in the theater I can say it plays BETTER in the theater (though the theater was my third viewing so I probably laughed more the first time when I watched it online)…:/


  2. I liked it a lot . I loved Jodie Foster the most, but yes, Kate was also very good. One of these days I’ll see “Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolfe”.


  3. Great review. You definitely liked it way more than I did. I got tired of it really quickly and hated Foster’s performance. Winslet was customarily good. John C. Reilly got lost in the shuffle.


  4. nevertooearlymp Says:

    Great review. I actually saw this one in a very small theater (about 40 seats total), and after reading your review I feel lucky about that because it felt much more intimate and claustrophobic.


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