At a lean 80 minutes, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s hit play God of Carnage just barely works. Like half of its cast of loathsome characters, this stagey, mostly predictable comedy of bad manners runs the serious risk of outstaying its welcome. But thanks to a few nice comic turns and a crisp final 10 minutes, the comedy manages to rise above its own calculated chaos.
Carnage begins with a long shot of a Brooklyn park. A group of kids follow and apparently taunt another boy. The solo boy eventually retaliates by hitting the group’s ringleader in the face with a stick, and walks away.
We then move to the apartment of Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster), the parents of the boy who was struck in the face (and, it turns out, sustained some facial injuries). They are in the midst of writing a letter to the boy’s school detailing the event with the help of Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), the parents of the boy who swung the stick.
The cast of Carnage in their native habitat
On the surface the awkward visit is a goodwill attempt to mediate the situation without resorting to lawsuits, but it soon becomes clear that it’s also an opportunity for the adults to do what many parents do best: fire off observations and accusations regarding the other couple’s parenting skills.
When you go in to Carnage, you know exactly what you’re going to get – and in that sense it’s the laziest kind of satire. There’s never any question that these civilized folk gathered to discuss a shocking breach of the social contract will soon devolve into chaos themselves. The fun of the piece, then, should be the mechanisms by which we get to the point of breakdown and the skill with which the actors illustrate the chaos. Unfortunately, many of the mechanisms in Carnage are ridiculous and only one performance truly sings.
John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz
The most glaring plot contrivance is the fact that Winslet and Waltz’s well-heeled professional couple try to leave several times – even making it to the elevator on a number of occasions – only to be pulled back by guilt that they clearly don’t actually have about the situation. We’re never really led to believe that either one of them feels a real need to apologize to the other couple, so their reluctance to leave feels forced – and the couple is so openly callous that they clearly don’t care if they’re perceived as bad neighbors.
On the stage, of course, space is psychologically different – it feels much less forced when characters are trapped within a proscenium before a live audience who wants to see them interact. When cameras are free to follow characters down hallways and into elevators, the audience just wants them to get the hell out.
Jodie Foster and Christoph Waltz
Likewise, I found the folksy dottiness of Foster’s character to be forced from the start, leaving her nowhere to go but flatline for the rest of the film (which all unspools in real time, in a single location, by the way). It’s exhausting to watch Foster try so hard to keep up a hysterical front for so long – but, unfortunately for a comedy, not particularly funny.
By contrast, Winslet’s transformation from ice queen working mom to trucker-mouthed brute is wonderfully engineered, and she pretty much walks away with the film. Though I normally love him, Reilly lacks the legitimate menace that his character probably needs for balance. And Waltz’s character – much like Foster’s – is an easy read from the start, and is there mostly to serve as a conscienceless foil for the other three more inhibited characters.
Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet
Other escalating events like a spontaneous bout of vomiting (which, while preposterous, is at least a diverting gross-out gag) and the breaking out of booze (which seems more than unlikely for these people at 4:00 in the afternoon under such tense circumstances) feel too calculated – nothing in the film feels organic until the downward slide has picked up significant momentum. I spent most of the first hour confused as to whether the movie was a deliberately unfunny farce or simply an off-key naturalistic comedy of manners – either way the effect was more confounding than entertaining.
In the end, though, the escalating barbs and insults and rapidly toggling alliances (girls vs. boys, rich vs. poor, cynics vs. optimists, etc.) do find a groove and the whole thing gels mere minutes before it wraps up. It’s of course fun to watch the tempers flare as the adults regress to more and more primitive forms of behavior, and these are four great actors who make the most of their material. Unfortunately the material doesn’t return the favor.
John C. Reilly and Kate Winslet
And it may be a small point, but I also think that it’s worth noting that according to this story, the absolute worst behavior imaginable is the sight of a grown woman calling another couple’s 11-year-old boy a “little faggot”. It’s the punctuation mark on an 80-minute run-on sentence, so I don’t think it’s saying too much to suggest that the tale is a deliberate comment on the issue of learned bullying behaviors as much as it is a general treatise on the fact that we’re all savages just beneath the pearls and Dockers.
As Morrissey once said, “Barbarism begins at home.” Even in Brooklyn.