Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Roman Polanski and Yasmina Reza (screenplay)
Starring Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly
Remember back in the day when MTV’s The Real World was all the rage? I waited every week with bated breath to see what shenanigans would occur when people “stopped being polite and started getting real.” That tagline is a pretty good synopsis of Carnage, a biting drama directed by Roman Polanski. The film takes place almost entirely in one room, and features four wonderful actors executing the dialogue-heavy script with taut precision. It’s The Real World for the subset of people who frequent the pages of The New Yorker, an intellectual exercise in superficialities and political correctness run amok. It’s only after a bottle of fine Scotch enters the fray that we see the characters’ facades crumble, and their true (somewhat nasty) personalities emerge.
Nancy (Kate Winslet) and her husband Alan (Christoph Waltz) are making an attempt to smooth over a schoolyard incident when they visit the apartment of Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly). It seems that Nancy and Alan’s boy wailed on Penelope and Michael’s precious angel, resulting in a few missing teeth. Used to be par for the course, right? In the old days, dad would congratulate his son for proving his manhood, but this is 2012, and proper parents mediate the crap out of such an incident.
Nancy and Alan do everything one would expect of upper crust parents – they apologize profusely, offer to pay for any dental expenses and so forth. Pleasantries are exchanged while everyone pretends that they would actually hang out together outside these awkward circumstances. Cobbler is shared, and all is good in the world. However, Penelope has mastered the fine art of passive-aggressive behavior, and the two couples are soon arguing about child rearing philosophies and appropriate discipline techniques. The civil meeting of parents dissolves into verbal sparring and boorish behavior, progressing to truly embarrassing lows when the stressed out couples get their drink on. Lowered inhibitions + simmering resentments = disaster.
There is precious little that actually happens in the film, which is adapted from a play (and it feels very much like a play). The joy is derived from seeing these fine actors take the script and make the most of it. I think John C. Reilly is horribly underrated as an actor. He is a great comedian, but handles drama with ease. Here he gets to dabble in a bit of both genres. He is the only character with blue-collar sensibilities, and adds a bit of levity to the all the pretentiousness swirling about him.
Waltz is delightfully unlikable as an attorney who can’t detach his cell phone from his ear. He’s an obnoxious, elitist snob who finds the whole experience beneath him. At first Winslet comes across sympathetic as his harried wife, but then she reveals her true colors as well. It’s great to see Foster in a film again, but her character becomes shrill and aggravating over the course of the film.
What’s really interesting about the story is that we learn much more about the two couple’s dynamics as things unfold. The original intent of the visit is thrust aside as the warring couples behave as poorly as their offspring presumably did.
I liked the film a lot, but I couldn’t help thinking that the premise would have been better served as a short, rather than a full-length narrative. Even at a lean 90-minute run time, the film felt long and drawn out. However, those first 45 minutes are quite fun, and I’ll still heartily recommend the movie for the acting alone. – Shannon