Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Reza’s Carnage (Directed by Roman Polanski)

It is set in Brooklyn, but for obvious reasons, Roman Polanski’s latest film was not shot on location. As a result, it confines itself to the bourgeoisie-with-pretensions-of-hipness apartment of the Longstreet family. However, that staginess mostly works for Carnage (trailer here), Polanski’s big screen adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s hit play, which opens this Friday in New York.

Penelope and Michael Longstreet are liberals, or at least she is. Alan and Nancy Cowan are conservative, or at least he is. There is no question who wears the pants in each family, but that does not mean Michael and Nancy do not resent their subordinate positions. They have gathered in the Longstreets’ remarkably spacious and idiosyncratic apartment to address a violent quarrel between their young sons. The Cowan boy (or “thug” as his father calls him) picked up a handy stick and knocked Master Longstreet alongside the head.

Both sets of parents want to resolve the incident, but clearly differ in their approaches. The Longstreets, meaning Penelope, want to bring the kids together for a healing moment, whereas the Cowans (both of them really) are more down-to-business and practical. At first, everyone wants to show how civilized and rational they can be, but the longer the Cowans reluctantly tarry in that apartment, the more nerves are frayed and simmering hostilities are bluntly expressed.

Cleaving first along family lines and then realigning according to gender, Carnage spares it characters nothing. Yet arguably the PC hypocrisy of the Longstreets (Penelope) takes it harder on the chin than Alan Cowan’s self-aware social Darwinism. Indeed, the whole premise of the film largely validates his world view.

Transferring Reza’s God of Carnage to the screen, Polanski embraces the one-set four-character verbal battle royale in all its theatricality. Indeed, it is easy to see why it was such a successful star vehicle on stage. Frankly, if Polanski were not Polanski, we would probably think of Carnage as a Reza film in much the same way we consider The Odd Couple a Neil Simon movie rather than a Gene Saks film. However, Polanski is most definitely Polanski.

All four cast members get a chance to behave badly in the spotlight and chew on some scathing dialogue. Once again, Christopher Waltz does Oscar caliber work as Cowan, making condescending arrogance enormously entertaining. Since John C. Reilly still does not have his own little gold statue though, he might be the focus of the film’s Academy campaign, even though it is the least showy performance. As for their better halves, Jodie Foster loses her cool outrageously as Penelope-not-Pen, while Kate Winslet is a bit more grounded, slowly breaking through Nancy Cowan’s icy reserve, eventually reaching a virtuoso state of manic aggravation.

In many ways, Polanski is undeniably an appalling human being. In a more just world, he would be sharing a cell with O.J. Simpson in California’s skuzziest prison. Those who want nothing to do with his work have every right to their contempt. However, they will miss a really darn funny film in Carnage. Though smaller in scope and talkier than most of his films, it is pointedly witty, performed with considerable flair by its all-star cast. Recommended for those who appreciate smart, politically incorrect humor, Carnage opens this Friday (12/16) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.