Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Talks Have Broken Down: CARNAGE

One of the funniest comedies of 2011, or at least one of the most consistently amusing comedies both despite of and because of its sharply satirical ambitions, came in right under the wire – a late December limited release – from an unlikely source – polarizing director Roman Polanski. It’s Carnage, based on the Tony-winning play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza who, with Polanski, wrote the adaptation. They don’t make the common mistakes of turning plays into films, inflating the play to dilute its talky passages or expand its setting. Instead, Polanski effectively embraces the lengthy dialogue and the inherent claustrophobia of the play’s concept. 

It’s set over the course of a single afternoon in one Brooklyn apartment while two upper-middle-class couples discuss what is to be done about their children. Earlier in the week, while playing in the park, one eleven-year-old boy struck another with a stick, resulting in the victim needing some amount of dental work. But overall, at least from what we can glean from the second-hand sources with which we’re presented, this incident has bothered the parents more than the children. On this particular day, their parents come together in the spirit of reconciliation to figure out an apology, compensation, retribution, or something. It turns out that’s easier said than done.

It starts as barely-disguised sniping over plates of cobbler. Soon the four of them are bickering about child rearing which in turn spills over into arguments about anything and everything. The battle lines formed, buried and coded at the beginning, couple against couple, are soon elegantly redrawn with startling ease as the conversation continues to devolve. Now it’s men against women, then perhaps its liberals versus conservatives, then maybe it’s just the hopelessly selfish against the helplessly altruistic, and then back again. The point of it is, these grown people, these supposedly responsible adults, have, through their personalities and the plot’s slick contrivances, devolved into juvenile fits while trying to solve their juveniles’ brief burst of conflict.

Polanski films these tensely funny moments with a considered eye. It’s a purposefully theatrical film that often feels like a single 80-minute scene that just goes on and on, gaining extended awkwardness and cringe-worthy behavior along the way. As the couples, the talented, multiple-Oscar nominated and winning cast – it’s Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly versus Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz – chomps down into the material in a convincing and sustained way.

It’s a movie that does not offer a single performer downtime, a movie that seems to keep all four in the frame more often than not. It’s an impressive and compelling feat of screen acting. The four of them throw themselves into defiantly unlikable characters and make them completely watchable. They ultimately stalk around the enclosed space with a fervor that stops just shot of scenery chewing, spitting out more and more of their true feelings, losing the veneer of propriety and decorum. The tense insults and free-flowing emotions are punctuated only by Waltz’s constantly ringing cell phone bringing him updates from colleagues at a high-powered law firm.

I wished the final scene could have landed with a bit more heft, especially since Polanski’s previous film, 2010’s gripping, masterful thriller The Ghost Writer, is not only one of his best films in a very long time, it also has one of the most memorable finales in recent memory. Though Carnage definitely held my interest throughout, the final moment is a deflation that comes as a bit of a surprise following a short runtime that seems to be nothing but sustained escalation. It left me feeling less than fulfilled; the note the film ends on is little more than a shrug. After watching Polanski and Reza guide a talented cast, gearing up for a sharp, potentially deeply cutting, bite of satire, the conclusion just backs away, underlining the silliness and slightness of what came before. But it can’t quite undo the stellar work from an impressive group of artists. This is a film that’s short and sweet-and-sour. It might not ultimately make as great a point as it initially seems headed towards, but it’s still a well-acted, precisely directed, tersely amusing entertainment. 

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