Carnage, like Polanski’s earlier films Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, sneers at humanity. It points out the arbitrary conventions that dictate relationships and demonstrates how easily they crack. It scoffs at the notion that society can work toward a greater good. There are too many bad apples for that.
Unlike his other work, Carnage is also a comedy. We’re supposed to laugh at its characters’ childish antics, and when we leave the theater we should feel more amused than horrified. The shift sounds simple in theory, but even Scorsese stumbled working with slapstick and whimsy in “Hugo.” Polanski, no less a visionary director, faces the same dilemma. How do you work with an unfamiliar tone and still make it feel effortless?
The film begins with a group of kids at a Brooklyn playground. A fight breaks out, and one boy hits another with a stick. Not an unusual playground exchange, by any means, but certainly enough to get the parents scrambling to negotiate peace on their sons’ behalf.
Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope (Jodie Foster) are the victim’s parents, hospitable, artistic types dressed in knit sweaters, who place books about Francis Bacon on their coffee table and serve dessert literally taken from Mom’s recipe book. They stand in contrast to Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz), a cold, professional couple. They wear their business suits with curt smiles, and Alan always has his phone at hand, for those pesky conversations with clients that just can’t wait.
Their meeting begins congenially, with forced kindness and hollow laughter, but tensions boil over quickly. Arguments ignite, characters that are supposed to be adults obsess over petty issues, and yes, it’s clear from the get-go this is an excuse to flip roles between parents and children for comedy and dramatic irony.
“Carnage” is based on a stage production, and it shows. The camera is mostly confined to Michael and Penelope’s apartment. There are only four main roles we really follow, and the script adheres religiously, laboriously even, to theatrical conventions. If anything was altered between play and movie, I doubt it was too important.
Polanski and cinematographer Pawel Edelman are smart enough with camerawork that the film, though confined in setting, never feels “stage-y.” I can’t say the same for the actors. A talented bunch, yet nobody seems comfortable with a script clearly suited to a live stage and its heightened emotions. At times they want to act large and broad, as they would in theatre, but the medium of film demands a smaller, more nuanced presence. As a compromise, they settle with a strained, robotic awkwardness that permeates the whole production. Only Foster digs deeper into her character, fully inhabiting the cognitive dissonance of a liberal mom and writer, the voice of reason who wants to shower everybody around her with profanities.
Perhaps the small cast and cheap, theatrical presentation were meant to facilitate Polanski’s foray into comedy. Considered that way, does “Carnage” succeed? Sometimes. Yes, it’s amusing to see adults throw hissy fits and insult each other like they’ve just discovered swear words. That’s not enough to carry an entire film. Once you figure out the main conceit, you’ve understood what the movie has to say. Beyond that, the plot is static, its arguments heated but indifferent. Polanski’s fatal sin is not failing at comedy, but failing to give us a compelling, cinematic story.
I like movies, no matter how verbose, to not just stand still but walk, run, stroll, skip, leap — to engage in a variety of action. The only time “Carnage” takes an unexpected, exciting turn is when a character throws up. For the movie’s sake, I won’t spoil who pukes.