Roman Polanski’s Carnage, which is based on Yasmina Reza’s prize-winning play, God of Carnage, might be perfect proof that some stage plays just can’t work as movies, because if one of the most acclaimed directors of our time can’t make it work, I doubt anyone could.
The story is rather simple: Two sets of New York parents get together in one of their homes to calmly discuss an altercation that had occurred between their 11-year-old sons. Their boys got in a fight, and one boy hit the the other with a stick, knocking out some teeth.
The parents of the injured boy are Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), and it’s in their home that the meeting occurs. The parents of the stick-wielding boy are Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz).
Penelope and Michael seem to be, at first, slightly on the granola side; liberal, artsy, and down-to-earth. Nancy and Alan, on the other hand, appear prim, conservative, and bombastic, as Alan, a lawyer, is forever taking calls on his cell-phone trying to avert a crisis with a pharmacological company client.
While the goal of the afternoon is calm discussion, it, of course, eventually devolves into screaming, fighting, and name-calling, and this is where the comedy comes in.
Or should come in, and therein lies the movie’s fatal flaw. It seems perhaps no one told Polanski Carnage is a comedy, or the director has just completely lost the feel for comedy he has displayed in such past movies as The Tenant, Fearless Vampire Killers, and even Rosemary’s Baby, (another movie kinda sorta about two New York couples). And to watch God of Carnage without the comedy is to watch nothing but an uncomfortable afternoon of fighting between four insufferably privileged parents.
But I think the issue might be that this kind of talky ensemble comedy is simply better suited to the stage. Some lines are just inherently funnier when they’re spoken in the loud bravado a stage setting requires, and the comedy of those lines can be completely squashed when stated by an actor whose face is in a tight close-up.
Unless you’re just setting up a camera and filming a stage play, the performance of said play has to be different when performed for a movie. If done as broadly as a stage play has to be, it can be overbearing, and tiring to watch. Jodie Foster, during her character’s more angry moments, feels like she’s performing to a live audience that isn’t there, with an intensity that is uncomfortable instead of comedic.
Kate Winslet has a moment that, if performed on stage, is probably much more shocking, and therefore funny, than it comes across on screen, simply because of the setting. (I don’t want to spoil the moment because, while it ultimately doesn’t work the way it’s intended to, it’s still surprising.)
Speaking of Winslet, her American accent has always been the verbal equivalent of nails on a chalkboard to me, and she’s paired with Christoph Waltz, who is Austrian, but seems to be trying to mask that accent in a way that’s really distracting. Which is a shame, because his character is ultimately the most entertaining one, first coming across as above the charade of amicable discussion, and then gleefully digging in for an afternoon of bitter exchanges fueled by liquor, until the tables are turned on him.
John C. Reilly’s affable everyman, who turns out to be filled with a lot more rage than you’d think, doesn’t quite make that transition believable, and really made me wish I had been able to see James Gandolfini’s turn in the role on Broadway.
In the original play, the incident between the boys isn’t something the audience is witness to, but Polanski, in what I imagine is an ill-fated attempt to “open the play up,” presents the incident in a single-take wide shot at a park at the beginning of the movie, and then bookends it with a similar scene at the very end, once again showing the boys at the park. But while the scenes are meant to be ambiguous, they are in no way as ambiguous to the story as not having the scene there at all would be, a point which is actually a very integral aspect of the play as a whole.
Ironically, instead of opening the play up, Polanski has made a movie that feels insular and one-sided; full of too much carnage, and not enough comedy.