Friday, September 30, 2011

NYFF ’11: Carnage

For obvious reasons, Roman Polanski did not appear at a festival press conference, nor will he be participating in post-screening Q&A’s. However, Carnage (trailer here), the 49th New York Film Festival’s opening night film, is still one of the most eagerly anticipated selections for New York cineastes, who have been packing to capacity the recently concluded Polanski retrospective at the MoMA. A nearly instant sell-out, patrons will have to decide whether they want to try their luck with stand-by tickets tonight, or wait for the film’s scheduled theatrical opening on December 16th, via Sony Pictures Classics.

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 stylish Manhattan 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 Cowan’s reluctantly tarry in that apartment, the more nerves are frayed and simmering hostilities are bluntly expressed.

Cleaving first along family lines and then turning on each other, Carnage spares nobody. Yet arguably the PC hypocrisy of the Longstreets 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.

Adapting Yasmina Reza’s hit Broadway play God of Carnage for the screen, Polanski embraces the staginess of the one-set four character verbal battle royale. Indeed, it is easy to see why it was such a successful star vehicle on stage. 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 films 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. There are four sold-out screenings tonight, divided between the Walter Reade and Alice Tully Hall. Good luck getting in.