Carnage (2011)

DVD Cover (Sony Home Entertainment)
Comedy, Comedy Drama, Sophisticated Comedy
Roman Polanski Roman Polanski
Jodie Foster Jodie Foster
Kate Winslet Kate Winslet
Christoph Waltz Christoph Waltz
John C. Reilly John C. Reilly
Elvis Polanski Elvis Polanski

7.2 / 10 - Overall Rating

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Review by bluemeanie
Added: November 22, 2011
Sometimes what is lost in the transition from stage to screen is monumental. It depends on the theatrical piece and how it lends itself to the magic of cinema, the transforming medium of film. With pieces of theatre where action and events occur offstage, this gives filmmaker a chance to really expound on previously existing material. Examples of this working would include "Closer" and even "Proof", two underrated instances where the transition from stage to screen was, ultimately, successful. "Carnage" doesn't succeed so flawlessly. That's not to say it isn't a good film. it is. It's a very good film. But it feels like it's stuck within the confines and limitations of a stage work and doesn't have very much room with which to grow. It needs more air and it just doesn't get it.

The play was called "God of Carnage" and was written by the great Yasmina Reza (she co-wrote this screenplay with Polanski). The stage productions starred James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis. In the film version these actors are replaced with John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet. The story centers around two sets of parents who are brought together in an odd way. Reilly and Foster play Michael and Penelope Longstreet whose son Ethan was hit with a stick by Zachary, the son of Alan (Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet) Cowan. The Longstreets invite the Cowans over to meet in an effort to resolve the issue in a mature way. Throughout the course of the next 75-minutes, the parents belittle, assault, confront, confuse, console and agree with one another, slowly whittling down and exhibiting the same kind of adolescent behavior they loathe in their kids, showing us exactly why their children might be the way they are.

The problem with this transition is that there is nothing on which to expound. The action never leaves the apartment and is confined to a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. We see no action take place anywhere by there and so all we're left with is 75-minutes worth of dialogue - interesting dialogue, but dialogue nonetheless. It's difficult to comprehend why the Cowans don't just leave; they're on the verge so many times but unrealistic motivations seem to keep them at the apartment engaged in this back-and-forth. That worked better on stage and the film version does not do an adequate job of making us understand that. Nor does the film do a good job with heightening the tension. The play did a great job of showing ups and downs and highs and lows and the extremes to which these characters would sometimes go. Everything in the film seems all kind of sedate, by comparison.

Polanski has tackled play adaptations before, and more successfully. "Death and the Maiden" is a fine example of how he can take a very simple and very basic script and bring it to life. But, in that piece, there was much action that was referred to offstage. In "Carnage", there is none. It's just four people talking about one matter over and over again, getting worked up and then settling down. So I can't blame Polanski as the director. I do blame Polanski and Reza as the screenwriters. More was needed to spice this story up for the screen. Yes, you can take four amazing actors and give them this material and just let them go with it. And it will work. But it would work so much better if they were given just a little more. These actors, at times, seem stymied by the words because they know it's not allowing them to build up any kind of relevant emotional level.

As far as the performances go, Jodie Foster gets the most with which to work. Her character seems to be the most complex and nuanced and she does a fine job of conveying that sense of sedate desperation. Winslet and Waltz have great chemistry and compliment one another nicely as the wealthier, more uptight couple. If there is anyone who strikes the occasional wrong note, it's John C. Reilly. He comes off far too oafishly comical at times when you just don't feel like he would. He has some other fine moments but he falters occasionally. But getting to watch these four dynamite actors tackle this material is a treat in itself and definitely make the film worth viewing for that reason alone. You have to forgive a lot, but you can make those allowances for fine acting.

"Carnage" is something to be seen and appreciated for what it is - an adaptation of a play. I can't believe anyone would prefer this version to the stage version, but that's not really the point I suppose. Both can be appreciated for what they are and rarely do you see such a rock star combination of director and performers. Polanski is continuing to make interesting directorial choices in his later years and seems totally unafraid. I like that. That is the kind of Polanski I want to see. I recommend "Carnage", flaws and all. 7/10.
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