A film named Carnage directed by Roman Polanski–the man who gave us Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and a scandal over his rape of a 13 year old girl–would seem to raise expectations in predictable ways. Oh boy, you might think. Who’s up for a night of beautiful people, nasty mind games, kinky sex and maybe a cameo by a bloody knife? Honey, book the babysitter!
But this Carnage is actually the film your babysitter might write about you, if you came from the urban upper class and your 11-year-old had just had his two front teeth knocked out by a classmate swinging a stick. The other kid’s parents arrive to patch things up. They’re a couple of notches above you on the income scale. The wife, Nancy, is expensive goods but well-mannered (a plump role for Kate Winslet). Her husband Alan (Christoph Waltz), a lawyer who represents Big Pharm, can’t disguise his boredom and disdain with the charade: he drips wry condescension in the Oscar Wilde tradition. He seems more married to his Blackberry than to Nancy.
That’s how the film begins, our sympathies naturally drawn to the parents of the violated child. We can see why the victim’s mother, Penelope (Jodie Foster), doesn’t find the apologies satisfactory. But we also share the awkward if hearty attempts of her husband, Michael (John C. Reilly) to put the whole thing behind them, because in a couple of beats Foster establishes that Penelope is more than a bit uptight. “He has no face left!” she says of her son. This Tiger Mom is PC to boot–a writer doing a book on the Darfur genocide. Turns out she’s also furious at Michael for putting their daughter’s hamster out on the street the night before, because the rodent’s treadmill kept him awake. This, of course, supplies Nancy with an opportunity to react with upper class revulsion, setting off the next round of passive-aggressive dialog.
That’s how Carnage works, like a classic farce, played with slamming doors and abrupt plot twists, revelations piling on revelations. People lose their carefully polished shells. Spouses take sides against each other, then rally to launch vicious counter-attacks. Poor Penelope is reduced to a quivering Jell-O mold of liberal platitudes while Alan, her polar opposite, manages a client crisis by arranging media attacks on the victims of drug side effects. Michael’s sick mother won’t listen to her bombastic son but does take comfort in Alan’s sonorous advice.
Since this is a domestic drama, the twists at times seem small and predictable. Coffee gives way to single malt scotch–dear me! Both marriages are tottering–duh! The PC shrew may have a substance abuse issue in her past–whoa!
But the film comes by its staginess honestly, adapted from a play by Parisian provocateur Yasmina Reza. This, her latest piece of épater la bourgeoisie, wowed London’s West End and translated well to Broadway, thanks to heavyweight casting of Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden and, especially, James Gandolfini in his first non-Sopranos star turn.
Transferred to film with four equally strong actors, and the deft direction of Polanski, Carnage doesn’t loosen its grip until just before the abrupt ending. Because it is faithfully adapted, and played out entirely in Penelope and John’s Brooklyn apartment and hallway, the pacing and dialog have that Broadway snap, crackle and pop. It’s an entertaining 79 minutes with one coup de théâtre (which I won’t spoil) and the high sheen of a cultural artifact. But what Carnage doesn’t quite do is convince us that any of this overly schematic drama matters. In the end, it lacks carnage. For that, you’ll have to go out for an after-theater drink and, using the movie as an appetizer, nosh on the state of your own relationship.