Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Review: "Carnage"

Films based on stage plays are never hard to spot. There's the compressed cast, the static location and the carefully bookended world that exists around the characters. Perhaps most recognizably, and often to the detriment of adapting a work from stage to screen, is the theatricality -- the artifice -- of the proceedings.

"Carnage" is a wonderfully acted drama about two sets of parents, played by Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly. That's three Oscar winners and an Oscar nominee, folks.

As one might expect from such a dazzling cast, and one led by an expert director like Roman Polanski, the performances are a delight. The parents, Michael and Penelope Longstreet (Reilly and Foster) and Nancy and Alan Cowan (Winslet and Waltz), are brought together by a serious brawl between their 11-year-old sons.

Outwardly, everyone is trying to act maturely and magnanimously, endeavoring to resolve the situation without resorting to lawsuits and hysterics. Soon, though, things devolve into a quagmire of clashing egos, ulterior motives and two marriages that have carefully spackled over their deep fault lines.

"Carnage" is based on the play by Yasmina Reza, who co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski. The dialogue is sharp and stealthy, as four smart Manhattan parents reveal the bile and loathing hidden by their upper-class veneer.

The problem is, I never for a moment bought these characters as real people. As much as I often enjoyed basking in their verbal parries and thrusts, the action is always kept at emotional arm's length, as we watch these carefully constructed creatures run through their paces with all the surprises of a pre-programmed automaton.

Still, the performers themselves are nearly worth the price of admission.

Penelope is a politically correct, New Age-y type with a carefully cultivated sense of victimhood. She takes her boy's injury (the loss of two teeth) personally, and is not looking for revenge, but abject contrition. When she fails to receive it, it uncorks some serious anger beneath the placid surface.

(It's notable that the avowed peace-lover is the only one of the foursome who resorts to violence as things grow tense.)

Mike is garrulous and friendly, always ready to be seen as the mediator of conflict. But his blustery personality hides some troubling issues, from the minor (a pathological fear of his daughter's hamster) to the major (declaring marriage and children the bane of manhood).

Nancy is an investment broker, carefully coiffed and mannered, who's eternally vexed at Alan's eternal interruptions to talk business on his cell phone. A high-profile lawyer, he's handling a huge case in between needling the Longstreets.

Alan is the most mercenary of the bunch, making it quite plain he considers the spat between their sons an overblown waste of his time. But in some ways he's also the most honest, since he doesn't bother to hide the selfish instincts the others work hard to conceal.

Everything plays out in a crisp 79-minute encounter in the Longstreets' apartment, punctuated by conversations about the Darfur atrocity, the best kind of toilet mechanism and an impressive spew of vomit onto some rare art books.

"Carnage" works better when seen as a master class in acting than a workable, believable story.

2.5 stars out of four

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