Roman Polanski’s latest effort is the film version of Yasmine Reza’s French play “God of Carnage.” After being favorably received onstage in Reza’s native France, both Broadway and the West End mounted productions, to mostly positive acclaim. It seems natural, then, that a film version—a 90-minute set piece in which the characters barely leave the room—would attract a cast interested in flexing their stage-acting muscles, and that’s exactly what Polanski’s stars do. Not only do we have Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet facing off as dueling mothers, Christoph Waltz plays an unbearable lawyer (husband to Winslet’s character), and John C. Reilly holds his own as Foster’s husband. There are three Oscars and god knows how many nominations between them but, while that certainly shows, “Carnage” still feels very much like a stage play, having inherited both the pleasures and restrictions inherent to that mode of performance. However, the overall result is funny, engrossing, and maybe a bit disturbing—it makes you wonder what your neighbors really think of you
The film starts with a playground fight between the two couples’ sons (shown to us briefly under the opening titles, from afar). One child has bashed the other in the mouth with a stick, and the two sets of parents agree to meet one afternoon to try and work out an amicable solution. So, for the film’s entire runtime, we scarcely leave the well-appointed living room of Foster and Reilly’s characters.
As the adults discuss the incident in question, their different philosophies on everything from childrearing to politics quickly become apparent. Waltz and Winslet are rich, stressed-out professionals: Waltz is constantly interrupted by his Blackberry, and Winslet portrays the practiced politeness and inner distain of the upper class perfectly (at least at first). Foster and Reilly are supposed to represent a less-intense, slightly hippier demographic—the Brooklyn to Waltz and Winslet’s Upper West Side. However, these class distinctions aren’t as sharp as Polanski and his production designer seem to think they are; Foster and Reilly’s apartment is nothing short of palatial (have you house-hunted in Brooklyn lately?), and Foster’s character must be independently wealthy, since she works as a part-time writer while her husband is a traveling salesman.
The differences between the couples are more philosophical than strictly financial. It seems that what Polanski and company are trying to lampoon, more than anything, is the “conspicuous authenticity” of people like Foster’s character, who spends her time writing books about plagues and genocides in Africa, and keeps reminding the feuding couples that they’re all “citizens of the world.” Though Waltz’s character is a soulless shark and Winslet’s a stuck-up bitch, somehow the film doesn’t condemn them as directly as it does the hypocritical do-gooderism of Foster’s character.
As their meeting devolves from conversation to debate to all-out argument, the four characters form and break alliances; sometimes the women gang up on the men, sometimes it’s one couple against the other, and everyone comes off badly (though it makes for great comedy). It’s almost titillating to watch Reilly’s character revealing his true, un-PC—and very un-Brooklyn—opinions in crude terms, and to see Winslet’s character drink too much and sound off on her sleazy husband. You’re secretly urging the characters to really speak their minds, because the pleasure of the film comes from delighting in their barely-concealed prejudices. If only we could all say what we really think, the film seems to say, perhaps a life would be a whole lot simpler.
“Carnage” opens December 16th in NYC and LA.
© Lita Robinson 2011