- Rated R
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All photos © Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by Bob Westal
t's easy to see why Roman Polanski was attracted to French playwright Yasmina Reza's international black comedy hit, "God of Carnage." It deals with the classic post-World War II issue of man's inability to defeat primeval urges within a supposedly civilized society. Polanski, a survivor of monstrous crimes and the perpatrator of another one I need not describe, is a man who clearly has had an issue or two with being a human animal.
It's title shortened for the presumably more word-averse, deity-fearing movie market, "Carnage" starts at what should have been the end of things. Two boys have had a fight and one has knocked out the baby tooth of another with a branch. The four parents, Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) and Priscilla and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), have apparently come to a very reasonable agreement on the matter. Unfortunately for all concerned, the journey down the hall and to the elevator of the Longstreets's fashionable Brooklyn apartment proves to be an impossible one. These four people simply cannot let go of their unstated belief that their particular team, be it Team Cowan and Team Longstreet or Team Male and Team Female, actually deserves to beat the other team into submission. Some bad cobbler and some good Scotch also play a crucial role in a get-together of an increasingly nasty sort.
Since "Carnage" consists entirely of four kind of unpleasant people bickering uncomfortably for a bit less than 80 minutes in an urban apartment, the world's most controversial director has given himself a challenge that once again recalls to his career-long affinity with Alfred Hitchcock and movies like "Rear Window." This may be only his third theatrical adaptation among some 21 features, but Polanski's tremendous skill with creating dramatic tension ensures that we're in for a gripping as well as a very funny ride. Unlike Polanski's underrated 1994 take on Ariel Dorfman's "Death and the Maiden," we never forget we're watching a film version of a world-renowned play, in this case adapted by playwright Reza and Polanski with the help of English translator Michael Katims. Who says that's a bad thing?
It's beyond obvious that the chief weapon in Polanski's arsenal here is his all-star cast and, naturally, he's extremely well armed. Even so, it's the two actresses who win the thespian battle of the sexes and really show us some colors we haven't seen before. The involvement of a female playwright might have been a factor as they also have the better roles.
There hasn't been an awful lot of comedy in Jodie Foster's adult career, but here she jumps into the dark farce with all the over-the-top gusto she can manage as she displays her anger at the world's lack of outrage on behalf of her "disfigured" son. Kate Winslet is about equally as good as the initially uptight Nancy Cowan, loosened up first by unsanitary cobbler and then by some presumably bacteria-free Scotch. Among other feats, Winslet is perfectly convincing in what I think may be the first bit of gross-out comedy in the entire Polanski cannon, though kudos to make-up effects artist Alexis Kinebanyan are also in order. Movie vomit doesn't get much more realistic. Drunk scenes are notoriously difficult, but Winslet handles that with gutsy realism as well.
For the men, this is good and predictably very funny work, but not the absolute best from two of my favorite go-to actors. John C. Reilly brings us a slightly more venal variation of one of his many affable dimwits as a salesman married to Jodie Foster's aspiring anthropologist/philanthropist. As a lawyer who has rather openly abandoned most of his scruples, as well as all pretense of cell phone etiquette, Christoph Waltz is almost too well cast here. (I would pay to see a version of the play in which he and Reilly switched roles.) Nevertheless, Waltz nails every comic moment that comes his way with joyful precision and the worst thing I can say about his performance is that it neither escapes the ghost of Hans Landa nor Waltz's lilting Austrian accent. (A dialect coach receives a credit, but Kate Winslet seems to have received most of the help.)
When speaking of films by world class directors, we critics and cinephiles love to classify films as "major" or "minor." I can't call "Carnage" a major work at all, though when you consider such past classics as "Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown," "Repulsion," "The Tenant," or even last year's terrific "The Ghost Writer," even very minor Polanski can still be a mean and frosty treat. It's also nice to see the director dealing with a work that's primarily a comedy, which is something Polanski hasn't really tried since 1967's "The Fearless Vampire Killers" with Sharon Tate.
What I'm not at all sure of, though, is whether or not Yasmina Reza has written a major play. I haven't seen "God of Carnage" on stage in Christopher Hampton's original theatrical translation. Based on the film, however, this material is compelling and explosively funny, but also a compendium of themes and styles we've seen before and done with greater depth. Watching "Carnage," I couldn't help thinking about, in reverse alphabetical order, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "Six Degrees of Separation," "Lord of the Flies" and "The Exterminating Angel." Is that fair of me? I don't know, but assuming I'm right about those sources, it's no wonder the play resonated.
Single-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Sony’s Blu-ray release of “Carnage” doesn’t have much in the way of bonus material, but that’s to be expected from such a minimalistic movie. There are still a few extras included, however, and although the Q&A with John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz is ruined by a dreadful moderator, the 10-minute “Actors’ Notes” is a nice feature with all four actors discussing a variety of topics like the story’s key themes, filming the movie and working with Roman Polanski.