REVIEW: Carnage

25 03 2012

Every medium has its distinct storytelling capabilities.  The written word can inundate us with rich details and vivid characterization.  The stage can engage our hearts and our eyes with proximity and unflinching reality.  Film can wow us through fast manipulation of image and story that words or actors alone cannot illuminate.  Some, but not many tales can bounce between the different media.  Those that make the jump require strenuous retooling to fit the expressive purposes of their newfound home.

The fatal flaw of Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” is that it is merely a carbon copy of its source play, Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play “The God of Carnage.”  The two masters of their respective crafts, collaborators on the script, ultimately fail to realize what is cinematic about the story.  As a result, it just feels like a performance of the play itself (which I have read and deeply admire!) merely caught on film.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly happy that more people will be exposed to Reza’s keen insights into our primal natures.  Not everyone can afford to see it on Broadway, nor are touring or repertory companies going to be performing this in every town.  But it does the work a disservice to merely slap it onto a screen when it belongs on a stage.

The very nature of “Carnage,” four people talking in a room for 80 minutes, is something very much meant for the theater.  It’s not questionable or strange for them to never leave in that setting.  But in a movie, that just doesn’t make sense.  People don’t just have a giant conversation for the duration of a film.  Polanski and Reza’s solution to this is rather unsatisfying: a few awkward, borderline self-aware attempts to leave that feel forced and uncomfortable.

In fact, most of the adjectives in that last sentence could be used to describe the rest of the movie.  Directing the movie like Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Polanski largely allows the film to become an argue-a-thon where three Oscar winners (and one nominee) are largely let loose to outdo each other in craziness and overacting.  The winner is ultimately Jodie Foster, who by the end can hardly unscrunch her face or speak outside of a ridiculous falsetto.  Kate Winslet, barfing mess, takes a close second.

Sometimes an acting battle isn’t a good thing, and “Carnage” is a textbook case of how directors just letting the actors do their thing can be dangerous.  Here, Foster, Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and John C. Reilly appear akin to little children – leave them unsupervised and pay the price.  The ultimate cost of Polanski’s negligent lack of oversight is the loss of attention to Reza’s fascinating battle of the sexes.  Audiences are most likely left talking about how gross it was to see Kate Winslet blow chunks on Jodie Foster’s coffee table rather than the real thematic issues raised by the film, and that’s a real shame.  C+ 



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