Four frequently great performers are put in a room together, and not surprisingly, the results are worth watching in Carnage, the latest from director Roman Polanski.
Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz all deliver good work in this somewhat predictable but ultimately enjoyable adaptation of the Yasmina Reza play, God of Carnage (which Arizona Theatre Company produced locally just a couple of months ago).
Foster and Reilly play Penelope and Michael Longstreet, parents of a young boy who takes a stick to the face in a scuffle with a classmate. Winslet and Waltz play Nancy and Alan Cowan, the parents of the kid who did the swinging. The four parents come together in the Brooklyn apartment of the Longstreets to have a civil discussion about the event that caused some serious damage to the Longstreet son's face.
Of course, the mild-mannered discussion over Penelope's cobbler unravels in a maelstrom of cell-phone interruptions, hamster-abandonment stories, alcohol consumption and generally childish human dysfunction. Each performer's character has its quirks—and the performers sink their teeth into them.
Foster's Penelope is a control freak with a fake smile and an unhealthy attachment to her art books. The books become a big issue when Winslet's uptight and nervous Nancy projectile-vomits all over them. Waltz's Alan is a rude lawyer who can't disconnect his face from his phone, while Reilly's Michael comes off as a polite, even-tempered gentleman—until he flips his lid when the Cowans push him too far.
The couples try to part ways—many times—but humorously find themselves re-entering the apartment for coffee, scotch and further verbal arguments. It's clear that the couples need each other on this day to vent about life's frustrations and their troublemaking kids.
As the tension mounts, and more alcohol is imbibed, the characters slowly reveal their true selves. They are basically a bunch of unstable jerks, the opposite of the appearances they first put forth. The control freak is insecure; the rude lawyer is a bit of a baby; the amicable, welcoming husband hates people and is prone to tantrums; and the quietly nervous woman can verbally throw down with the rest of them. She can also vomit like a champion frat boy after a night of funneling PBR.
The screenplay is about as obvious as obvious can be. (Reza and Polanski collaborated on the adaptation.) When things take a turn for the worse, that's really the only turn they can take. (Is it a big surprise when Alan's cell phone winds up drowning in the flower vase? Nope!) There's no sense in making a film about four people coming together, talking about their kids, and being congenial the whole time.
Of the four, Reilly fares the best. He's an ace at playing drama in a very funny way. His reaction to his son being in a gang, and the way he depicts his character's aversion to rodents, are priceless. One could put forth the argument that Reilly, who also co-starred in the 2011 comedies Cedar Rapids and Terri (and the excellent drama We Need to Talk About Kevin), is one of the five or so most-valuable actors in Hollywood. He brings an edge and originality to every project he's involved in.
Waltz, while still playing a jerk here, gets a chance to be a little less sinister. Winslet can do no wrong, and she has a good time playing in Polanski's sandbox. Foster seems a little overbearing at times, but even with the overdone moments, her performance can be classified as good, at least.
It isn't a big surprise that Polanski would choose to direct a film set in one interior locale, with few exterior shots. The man has proved that he can handle claustrophobic settings before (The Pianist, Rosemary's Baby), and, let's face it, his ongoing legal troubles probably lend to a need for simple, uncomplicated productions with minimal locations.
Carnage is about being trapped in an uncomfortable, but inexplicably craved, social situation, and Polanski has no problem making the viewer feel trapped. I, for one, liked the experience just fine, but I can understand the argument that Carnage is a bit tedious. I'd disagree, but I'd hear the argument.
Polanski bookends the film with a couple of exterior park scenes, presumably moments that were not included in the play. Those scenes have no dialogue, but they are a nice contribution to the story.
As nutty as the couples get in Carnage, I could see them getting together after their first apocalyptic meeting and becoming lifelong buddies. There's something very real and needy about their interaction—something the actors and actresses bring across assuredly.
While I don't think there's a Carnage II: A Longstreet and Cowan Thanksgiving in the future, this acting quartet has created the sort of characters who make lasting impressions. They, with help from Polanski, will have you thinking about their destinies long after Alan's phone rings that final time.