Movie Review: Carnage- A Sporadically Humorous Film About the Facade of Parental Civility That Would Have Been Stronger in the Hands of a Riskier Director

Adapting any material for the big screen can be a tricky process but it’s especially so when considering the minimalist settings and character oriented tales on the stage. There is a preconceived idea on how the story should play out with play adaptations because of the familiarity with the story and the performances of the original cast. And with a popular play such as Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” popular both here in the US and in France where it originated, that standard of expectation is equally daunting even if you have an accomplished director such as Roman Polanski behind it. Carnage, as the film version of the play is titled, is Polanski’s first comedy of sorts since his 1967 film The Fearless Vampire Killers and truth be told it drastically shows. The casting isn’t ideal, the comedy delivery is slightly stunted, and his handling of the static and limited environment isn’t what you would expect from a well-known director. It certainly lacks in presentation skills compared to the mastery of Sidney Lumet in how he dealt with minimalist settings (Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men). The film explores two couples meeting to discuss a fight between their sons at a playground and becomes a comedy of revelation, which exposes the annoying quirks, prejudiced assumptions, and diminishing facades of the parties involved. The play and film have a similarity to the themes of Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel where high class sensibilities devolve into the animalistic meaning the elimination of civility and politeness, which makes sense since they are both originally from French authors. Carnage, while not as good as its stage predecessor, has enough interesting dialogue and performances that will keep an audience relatively satisfied. However, throughout the process you realize that Polanski’s abilities are strained, the actors on the screen are not as good as their stage counterparts, and the film reveals too much to an audience that is meant to be purely objective observers.

A fatal flaw in a film presentation of the play “God of Carnage” is the opening credits where we witness, at a distance, the quarrel between the children on the playground that ignites the parental encounter that is the entire film. Actually seeing the act of violence doesn’t add anything to the core of the film and with enough contemplation can be seen as a detriment to our objective experience. Witnessing anything slants our view and it didn’t have to be in the film. But that is a criticism that is only part of the presentation as a whole. Polanski’s directing style can be sweeping, it can be elegant, and it can be succinct when he wants it to be. However, throughout Carnage it seems he had a difficult time handling a very tight environment, which utilizes a lot of close ups and different shot exchanges but never tries to express the emotion in the scene with the position of his camera. The beginning of the film should be uncomfortably awkward in its politeness and transitions into loose and bitter honesty near the end, though the camera use remains consistent. But the point of this story really revolves around the strengths of the performances because Carnage is an acting piece for comedic and overly dramatic delivery giving the actors in the project a lot of range and expression that needs a bit of restraint. While the four leads work very well and definitely appear to have fun with their roles, there is no denying that even though they have unquestionable talent the film would have benefited more with the original Broadway actors. John C. Reilly works best in his role as the arbitrating and overly polite host to the visiting couple but his transition from civil mediator to an explosively apathetic father doesn’t have the same level of change as it would have been with James Gandolfini (Broadway original), who happens to have the best reserved rage in the business. Where comedy is concerned delivery is important and it doesn’t seem Christoph Waltz has the chops as much as he did in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. His comedic abilities become more evident as the film goes on but his demeanor comes off as just plain nasty than it does pompous and indifferent, such as Jeff Daniels in the original play. The two female leads, Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet, have a unique chance to go unhinged and it is relatively successful though at times Foster seems a bit out of place. Acting aside the material in the play is incredibly strong and having the original playwright Yasmina Reza be part of writing the screenplay was a solid choice and it keeps the film interesting if not as strong as it should be.

A director more willing to experiment with a play that is essentially one long scene could have planned it out such as Hitchcock did for his play adaptation of Rope, which would have been essentially been one shot if he didn’t have to switch film stock. Polanski isn’t as accomplished a director as bourgeois crowds like to claim since he hasn’t made a classic or memorable film since Chinatown, but he what he can be credited for is not messing things up. Carnage as a Polanski film is one of those above average pieces in his arsenal of work probably due to his vast choices for shots and framing that make an intriguing visual experience and his handling of the actors, which makes it a sporadically humorous one. Perhaps holding the film up to the stage play expecting something identical is justifiably overcritical, but why did they make the decision of not using the original actors from the stage (Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, and James Gandolfini). Was this a creative decision? Was it an obligation through contract? Did the other actors not want to work with Polanski due to his sordid past? Whatever the reason might be there is an indisputable truth that transitioning a play to the screen requires a delicate approach and foresight for presentation and in regards to this play it needed a director with a better sense of risk and creativity beyond Polanski’s average abilities.

Grade: B-

Note: This movie does not come out till December 16th in limited release

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