A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov
Adapting plays for the big screen is a relatively rare tendency usually found with already accomplished filmmakers trying to go low-key by making a dialogue-based film. William Friedkin (of The Exorcist fame) did it in 2006 with Tracy Letts’ Bug – a film that stuck to the original play’s text almost religiously, creating a challenging to enjoy, but still admirable effort at conveying the mental breakdown of two desolate would-be lovers. Roman Polanski’s Carnage based on playwright Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” is similar in that it involves only four (roughly) speaking parts for nearly 80 minutes, but unlike Mr. Friedkin’s ballsy film, plays it safe, and fails to capture the original material’s biting contents.
The screenplay written by Mr. Polanski and Ms. Reza (co-adapting her own work) seems a bit off from the get-go. After introducing the catalyst of the story over the beginning credits (a boy hits another boy with a stick at a playground), the film cuts to the New York apartment of the victim’s parents, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly) welcoming the parents of the aggressor Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) to their apartment for a discussion. The meeting is meant to clear the air surrounding the playground incident by having Nancy and Alan apologize for their son’s behavior. Unfortunately, it turns into an argument as childish as the one the kids may have been in before the violent outburst.
It’s an intriguing set up and the actors involved certainly have the skill to carry the film on their respective shoulders. But the lines they are asked to deliver (or yell out melodramatically) seriously let them down. As an audience we have 80 minutes to spend with these people – enough time to make this film compelling by revealing a theme worthy of an argument. Instead, the screenplay goes around in circles – first Ms. Foster is seen as being correct, then Ms.Winslet, and so on. The take-away I presume, is that the parents of these kids demonstrate that they are about as good at resolving their issues as their pre-teen kids are. I’d say that’s a pretty weak point to get across, but it’s seemingly the only one. Sure, Mr. Waltz has a big speech about the carnage that forms the basis of humanity, and Mr. Reilly (given the most subtle, and best character) reveals some issues with presumed marital bliss, but these two flitting glimpses of depth are quickly thrown away in favor of cheap, emotional catharsis, that undoubtedly fails.
From a technical point of view the film is also unimpressive. Polanski’s mainstay cinematographer Pawel Edelman simply points the camera at the actors for a quick paycheck, leaving us with only a couple of artsy close-ups that reveal great details on the actors’ emotive faces. It’s amazing that the director/cinematographer team behind Oliver Twist, The Pianist and The Ghost Writer would make a film look as bland and outright boring as this. The editing and score (um, what score?) are not worth any mention as both editor Herve de Luze and composer Alexandre Desplat are pretty much not present, and are lucky to even be credited with the comparatively little work they actually did.
The actors of course fare better. The stand-outs are Ms. Winslet and Mr. Waltz – playing a rich, above everything and everyone married couple while also maintaining their credibility. There is an interesting chemistry between them when they are on the same side, or even when they argue, that is fairly fun to watch. Ms. Foster and Mr. Reilly are also trying their best with this material. Ms. Foster is usually a subtle actress, but I guess when you’re forced to state the obvious throughout the whole film, you need to try extra hard to get any resonance, and boy does she! It’s a performance that will leave many people with the impression that she is trying too hard. Which leaves Mr. Reilly – the only one who’s actually fun (this is billed as a comedy) and who actually embodies his character whole. He plays a caricature, but due to his performance, it’s a caricature we can relate to.
The film ends up being a total Polanski-as-a-control-freak bore, that’s never truly clever or funny, and the themes it chooses to enlighten us with are so old-hat, you’d think it was written as a first draft of a much deeper work. In the end, while the actors try hard, it just seems anti-climactic and unfinished, never succeeding at getting it’s point across.