Carnage (2011)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/12/12 22:37:48

1 stars (Sucks)

If you were to consciously develop a film with the most outstanding artistic pedigree possible, you could hardly come up with one more positively dripping with talent than "Carnage," a film based on Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage," a play that has received rave reviews wherever it has been staged, features, in Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz, a quartet of actors who have accumulated twelve Oscar nomination and four wins among them and has been directed by Roman Polanski a man who is often regarded as one of the all-time great filmmakers. With a roster of talent like that, it is impossible to sit down to watch it without feeling an elevated sense of expectation about what is to come--there is no way that these people could possibly come up with something that wasn't worth watching on at least some fundamental level. And yet, in one of the more shocking cinematic developments in recent memory, "Carnage" not only pretty much strips away those vaunted expectations long before then end of the first reel, it devolves into such an utter mess that it boggles the mind that so many good people could band together and come up with so little in return for their efforts.

Set in a Brooklyn apartment and unfolding more or less in real time, "Carnage" deals with the repercussions of a playground incident involving two 11-year-old boys, Zachary and Ethan, that began for unclear reasons and ended with Zachary hitting Ethan in the face with a stick and knocking out two of his teeth. In an attempt to repair the damage, Zachary's well-to-do parents, Alan (Waltz) and Nancy (Winslet), have come to pay a visit to Ethan's profoundly middle-class mother and father, Penelope (Foster) and Michael (Reilly). At first, everyone is as polite as can be as they try to create a letter announcing their reconciliation--gently suggesting that the word "wielding" might be too inflammatory and the like--but as time goes on, Penelope's need to control every aspect of the situation and Alan's rude tendency to interrupt the proceedings every few minutes to answer his constantly ringing cell phone begin to drive a wedge between the two couple. Nancy and Michael try to smooth over the bumps created by their spouses but after the introduction of some fine Scotch and some questionable cobbler, they also begin spewing as well, both figuratively and literally, and soon all four of them are at each others throats in a constantly shifting series of alliances.

It sounds promising enough, especially in the hands of a director like Polanski whose filmography is chock-full of works featuring seemingly normal characters behaving very badly in close confines, including "Repulsion," "Cul-de-Sac," "The Tenant," "Bitter Moon" and "Death and the Maiden," to name but a few. And yet, even though "Carnage" would seem to be right in Polanski's particular wheelhouse, it stumbles right from the start and never manages to regain its footing. The chief problem seems to be the fact that the material, which has been adapted to the screen by Polanski and Reza, is surprisingly weak considering the strong reputation of its stage incarnation. The basic notion driving the story is that mankind, despite all of its notions of civility, is still essentially savage in nature and people are perfectly willing to shed their carefully cultivated social graces and go for the throat at the slightest provocation. As bold and startling narrative ideas go, this is nothing to write home about but it could theoretically expand into something interesting or at least amusingly nasty in the right hands but it never does. Instead, as the four characters go about their plodding paces, it becomes obvious that the story is less interested in offering incisive social commentary as it is in jury-rigging the proceedings to ensure that everyone manages to say exactly the wrong thing at exactly the right time in order to keep things moving along and to keep everyone in the apartment long after common sense would have inspired them to leave. The creaky mechanics of the storyline only serve to highlight the inescapable fact that the central conceit of the story, that the natural state of man is one of strife and conflict, is essentially a bunch of hooey, at least as presented here.

Despite the essential lameness of the material, it is easy enough to see how "Carnage" could work on the stage--with its fast pace and minimalist structure, it seems like just the kind of thing that could go over like gangbusters in front of a live audience getting caught up in the heat generated by the various theatrical pyrotechnics on display. However, even though Polanski would seem to be the perfect person to handle the film version--not only is the material right up his alley but he has also demonstrated a facility for bringing plays to the screen in projects like "Macbeth" and "Death and the Maiden"--he never figures out the right method of handling the story. For one thing, he destroys the ambiguity of the material right from the start by showing us the incident involving the kids--by letting us see what happened instead in detail, he inevitably drains what little subtlety there is out of the piece and transforms what was once abstract into something thuddingly obvious. For another, Polanski's normally cool and detached cinematic style clashes uneasily with the story because by forcing us to observe the two couples from a distance as their get-together dissolves into chaos, he makes it virtually impossible to let viewers get swept up in the chaos unfolding before them. Instead, he unintentionally underlines all of the basic contrivances of the story in ways that make it impossible to take seriously for a moment and as a result, the whole thing feels absolutely endless even though it clocks in at just under 80 minutes.

As I mentioned before, the four actors cast here are as talented as anyone could possibly hope for but not even they can do much with the characters they have been given here. Surprisingly, the weakest link here is Foster, who usually shines even in weak movies but who has rarely been as dreadful as she is here. Her character is incredibly implausible--you don't believe that Penelope would say most of what she says, does half the things that she does or even that she would be married to the likes of Michael in the first place--and her strenuous attempts to make the one-dimensional role convincing only serves to underline just how unlikely it really is. By comparison, Reilly is supposed to be playing a character who is affable enough on the surface but kind of a cloddish brute underneath but comes across as too bland and cloddish to be convincing either way. On the other side of the conflict, Kate Winslet is initially amusing in the way that she nails Nancy's excessively passive-aggressive nature but as the character devolves into a screeching puke machine, her performance eventually becomes too cartoonish for its own good. (That said, she might have made for a more interesting Penelope and it is too bad she didn't get cast in that role instead.) Of the four, the best by far is Waltz, who perfectly captures the supremely self-involved nature of his character and is, despite the essentially loathsome nature of the role, the closest thing to a believable and compelling person on the screen--it is only during the final scenes that he too eventually succumbs to the stupidity of the story.

So what happened with "Carnage"--what could have possibly inspired so many smart and gifted people to get together in the service of such sub-"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" nonsense? All I can guess is that Polanski and the actors were so familiar with the reputation that "God of Carnage" had developed on stage and so excited with the idea of working with each other that they cheerfully signed on without hesitation and it was only when they got to the set that they discovered at last that there was much, much less to the material than they thought. (Too bad no one was around to make a documentary about its production--that might have made for an infinitely more interesting and edifying feature than the film proper.) Make no mistake about it, "Carnage" is a dreadful movie through and through--it is arguably Polanski's worst feature to date and this is coming from someone who is such an admirer of his work that I have been known to have kind things to say about his infamous seafaring epic "Pirates"--but more than that, it is a dispiriting film that will have audiences sagging in their seats while watching it and staggering out of the theater afterwards in a state of depressed disappointment after enduring its near-total waste of time and talent.

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