Neely Swanson

Carnage is carnage [MOVIE REVIEW]

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Kate Winslet as Nancy Cowan Photo by Guy Ferrandis, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

“Carnage” is carnage. Roman Polanski, with considerable help from Yasmina Reza herself, has taken a new translation of the play, “God of Carnage” and eliminated every vestige of comedy from within. Granted, it’s still Reza’s play but now it is without Christopher Hampton’s masterful translation or Matthew Warchus’s deft directorial timing and understanding that for an English speaking audience this was a comedy (and again, the emphasis is on comedy) of manners based on expectation, anticipation and underlying, if temporarily disguised, class differences.

Briefly, Penelope and Michael Longstreet have invited Nancy and Alan Cowen to their lovely apartment for a discussion. This is not, however, a strictly social gathering but more like a command performance, because just recently Nancy and Alan’s son was in a skirmish with Penelope and Michael’s son and knocked out two of young Master Longstreet’s teeth. Penelope feels that the civilized approach to resolution is to invite the other parents to discuss the situation and the possible consequences. And therein lies the conflict as the superficial veneer of civility is swiftly torn away as the afternoon wears on.

Worried from the onset as to where Mr. Polanski might take this black comic scenario, especially since his last successful foray into comedy, dark or otherwise, was in 1966 with “The Fearless Vampire Killers” and “Cul-de-Sac,” hope was still in the air as he has always been able to inject humorous elements into his dramas. Remembering the comments of a woman who was disappointed that the play didn’t dig below the surface and reveal more depth to the couples’ respective baser instincts, I held hope that Polanski might discover some new ground. It was, however, particularly troubling to see that a new translation of the play had been made, especially as the original was a flawless example of translation and adaptation by one of the world’s most renown playwrights and writer/translators of French, Christopher Hampton. Even more troubling was that Polanski and Reza claimed adaptation screenwriting credit. Polansky’s writing milieu is the thriller and few write them better. Reza’s milieu is the misinterpretation of language and situation in French, both culture and language. This was neither. In the back of my mind I remembered Reza’s acceptance speech when she won the Tony award for best drama in 2009 – “In France it wasn’t a comedy.” Foreboding words indeed.

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“Carnage” is not a comedy, of manners or anything else. It is a shrill, ugly afternoon spent with unpleasant people, none of whom match up in any way, shape or form from the beginning until the end. Penelope, played by an intense, humorless Jody Foster working her neck muscles to apoplexy, prides herself on her humanitarian good works. She has surrounded herself with expensive coffee table books on art. Her husband Michael, interpreted by John C. Reilly who is drowning in the deep end, disingenuously claims to be a hardware salesman. If you had seen the play, you would realize that he owned a chain of stores similar to Restoration Hardware and had worked his way up from the bottom, something that would have explained his ability to afford such an opulent apartment. Michael Longstreet is a reformed thug, as he was effectively portrayed by James Gandolfini in New York and in London by the marvelous character actor Ken Stott who has a mug like a pug. Never for a moment could you possibly believe that the sweet Mr. Reilly with his characteristic slow and slightly muddled speech was ever a tough guy; blue collar perhaps but almost entirely lacking in street sense. A later conversation with Alan, crucial in the play but superfluous here, where they reminisce about their “gang” backgrounds rings particularly false. The surface tension between Penelope and Michael should relate to Penelope’s desire to improve their cultural lot and disguise her disdain for Michael’s origins. Instead there is little surface tension because Penelope is just an intense bitch with unreasonable expectations for the behavior of others. Why anyone would ever stay married to such a harridan is as much your guess as it is mine.

Nancy and Alan certainly look the part of the gentry they are, as opposed to the gentry the Longstreets aspire to be. Nancy is an investment specialist (made much funnier in the play because it is her husband’s investments that she specializes in) and Alan is a high powered attorney with a cell phone rudely glued to his ear trying to manage his pharmaceutical client’s discovery that their drug may be lethal. If there is any humor in Alan’s recipe for saving the client by blaming the victims it is lost in the delivery of Christoph Waltz who is clearly concentrating more on nailing his American accent (which he doesn’t) than finding the nuance and comedic timing in the horrific spin he proposes to the various unknown individuals at the other end of the incessant calls he receives while in the company of the Longstreets and his long suffering wife. Instead of finding the notes of gallows humor, he goes straight for the gallows. As written for the screen, this is an evil man, pure and simple, no shades of gray. But instead of irony he delivers banality because of the dull, soporific affect of his voice. Kate Winslet’s Nancy almost finds the tone for the wife whose rich husband has so little regard for her that he can’t even get off his cell phone when she becomes ill during the afternoon. But Ms. Winslet seems utterly lost as to where she is expected to go with her character. In the end, she, like everyone else, goes nowhere.

In a prophetic moment, summing up the movie in its entirety, Michael says to Penelope, “What happened to your sense of humor?” She answers, without irony, “I don’t have a sense of humor. And I don’t want one.”

Plays rarely translate well to film. Theater is an inherently verbal medium dependent on the claustrophobia of the stage to heighten drama or emphasize comedy; the confines of the environment tends to lure the audience into an intimate relationship with the actors and the action. Film is a visual medium that often works best in an open arena more closely replicating a world familiar to the audience. The camera can go wide or close in on the tiniest movement or expression of an actor to convey meaning or develop emotion. “Ides of March” is a rare exception in going from stage to screen, in that the whole ended up being greater than the parts. Perhaps “God of Carnage” was never meant for the big screen; perhaps its superficial dissection of the shallow veneers we often adopt was too thin to pound out without disintegrating. Whatever the reason, “Carnage” is a complete misfire from beginning to end. With the exception of the ubiquitous cell phone and its role in the disruption of civil conversation, I doubt whether anyone will recognize elements of themselves within these characters, and without that, one can’t identify enough with any of the protagonists to bring about the kind of discomfort that comes with the self-recognition of human failing.

Opening Friday, December 16 at the ArcLight Hollywood and the Landmark at the Westside Pavilion.

Neely also writes a blog about writers in television and film at http://www.nomeanerplace.com.

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