Monday, January 16, 2012
Superficially Fair Minded and Collectively Concerned
Carnage, the latest film from Roman Polanski, is a hilarious, often biting satire on the emptiness of modern day living. Although it is far from top-drawer Polanski, it is still a very well-crafted film from this master filmmaker that deals with characters that live an uneasy life, somewhat like those individuals in many of his other works.
The film is based on the play Le Dieu du Carnage by Yasmina Reza, who adapted her play for the screen along with Polanski. The story is a simple one, as two New York couples meet to try and settle the remnants of a dispute among their teenage sons. Zachary, son of Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) hit Ethan, son of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) in the mouth with a stick, causing a bloody lip and two broken teeth. The couples get together in the Longstreet's modest, but beautifully appointed Brooklyn apartment to resolve matters.
What should be a simple matter, is anything but. Of course, we expect this or we wouldn't have a story, but it's the way that the cleverly written dialogue unfolds that makes this tale an engaging one. Right from the start, we see that the couples can't even agree on a single word - was Zachary "armed"with a stick or was he "carrying"one?
But given the differences in the couples, it's no wonder that they will quarrel for the entire time they are together in this small living room. The Cowans are quite well off - Nancy is an investment banker while her husband is an attorney, while the Longstreets have much more simple occupations - Penelope is a part-time writer who works at a book store, while Michael sells houseware supplies. Part of the charm of this film (and play) is the way it perfectly captures the small talk these individuals use during those clumsy moments that are so humanly displayed. "Is cobbler a cake or a pie?", asks Michael as he serves dessert to the Cowans in an effort to lighten the mood. Penelope replies, "The way I see it, if there's no crust on the bottom, it's not a pie."
But it doesn't take long for the conversation to take on a more serious mood. What should have been a simple meeting to set up a similar one for the teens turns out to be a marathon verbal exchange about who is to blame and who's right - not only as far as the boys, but especially among the parents. The four adults take turns mocking each other for their beliefs, especially Alan in his disdain for Penelope, who will not accept anything less than a full apology from Zachary - and even then, she really won't be pleased.
Michael stands up for his wife, but the next thing you know, he's mocking her. The same thing happens with Alan and Nancy and at times the men agree with the men while taunting the women and soon afterwards the women join forces to ridicule their husbands. This constantly shifting tone is a wonderful device and keeps the conversation engaging.
There's also some wonderful commentary about materialism, with Alan seemingly attached to his cel phone, while Penelope is hyper serious about her art books. Maintaining this behavior keeps each of them from truly connecting with their respective spouses and what's more, alienates them from what's really important in life - connecting with other people on an equal level.
While this film hardly addresses the world-weary attitude of the characters of Polanski's finest films such as Chinatown (1974) or The Ghost Writer (2010), you can understand why the director would take on this project. One of the main themes in the films of Polanski is that of being trapped (see my post on The Ghost Writer where I go into great detail about this) and that situation is the central point in Carnage. The Cowans, who came to the Longstreet's apartment for what they thought would take only a few minutes, literally become trapped in this setting, as they leave on three occasions but are brought back by coffee and dessert and then by some taunts from Penelope.
Alan is trapped in his momentary work, as represented by the numerous interruptions with calls on his cel phone. Nancy feels like a prisoner in her marriage, as she believes her husband doesn't care enough about her. Penelope is trapped in a world that doesn't see the problems in Africa, where she did research for her book and Michael is trapped in between all this, admiring his wife, but feeling like he can't do enough to please her demands.
Much of the dialogue is quite funny, especially as delivered by these four pros, who must have enjoyed this experience greatly as I'm sure Polanski did. Each performance is excellent with the finest coming from Waltz, who is the quietly ironic and very self-assured; he can't see the silliness of his constant phone conversations. Foster captures the irritating quality of Penelope quite well, never going over the top; Winslet is just fine, especially when she's had a bit too much single malt scotch and Reilly brings a lot of charisma to his role as a put-upon husband.
At only 75 minutes in length, this may seem ridiculously brief for a Roman Polanski film (heck that's not much of a running length for any feature), but it's a highly entertaining time. Carnage will never be viewed as one of the director's finest films, but it's one that takes us into a familiar world for the filmmaker, a world where the characters simply try to survive the madness that surrounds them. In the final analysis, the children in their innocence can settle their differences far easier and with more grace than the adults who have become "successful" with their cel phones, art books and fancy clothes. It's a challenging concept that this film tackles head on and does so very well.