Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Upper-middle class behaving badly has been a great avenue for comedy throughout the years.  There is something fascinating about proper manners and etiquette deteriorating under tense circumstances.  That is the basis of Carnage, Roman Polanski's comedy about a pair of wealthy parents who meet in an apartment to discuss an incident between their children.  The meeting begins polite enough, but it isn't long before the mask of measured words and proper dialogue melts down as the disagreement dissolves to rudeness.  It is a minefield for comedic banter, but Carnage never really has a grasp on timing, and it never really goes anywhere.  Based on the play "God of Carnage," I feel like the subject matter has been stretched too thin on the screen.

There is a confrontation on the playground at school, where one boy hits another one in the face with a stick.  Seen at a distance, the assault leads us to a stylish apartment where the parents of the children discuss the incident.  John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster play Michael and Penelope, the parents of the victim.  Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet are Alan and Nancy Cowen, the parents of the attacker who have come to Michael and Penelope's to, do what exactly?  Discuss the incident?  Apologize?  Make sure there is no lawsuit down the road?  The conversation bounces back and forth, tip-toeing around the subject so feelings aren't hurt.  They all have cobbler and tea and coffee, trying to remain civil.  But it doesn't last long.

These parents are all successful.  Michael sells hardware supplies, Penelope is a writer.  Nancy is an investment banker and Alan is a lawyer, who cannot take the time to discuss such frivolous matters in this apartment without taking phone calls regarding a very big case.  Of all the four involved, Penelope is the most passive-aggressive antagonist, worrisome and uptight.  She casually mentions the two teeth her son lost, a possible concussion, but Nancy continually blows her off until she can't take it anymore.  Michael struggles to keep everyone calm.  "We're all decent people," he says, maybe trying to convince himself as much as the others.  A funny running gag is the fact that Alan and Nancy wind up in the hallway or have a foot in the elevator before a snide remark or Alan's ringing cell phone bring them back into the apartment.

The unit breaks down.  Alcohol is introduced, and dirty laundry is aired more rapidly.  But up until the point where Michael breaks through his facade ("Penny made me dress up like a liberal!") and starts pouring the scotch, Carnage doesn't function like a film.  It goes around and around in circles and grows achingly repetitive.  At under 80 minutes, the first hour of the picture feels much longer and is uninvolving.  Polanski keeps the film fittingly claustrophobic, and the final minutes of the film are much more entertaining that anything before it.  But Carnage is clearly a play that worked better on stage.  Here, it feels stretched out to the point where everything feels like a reach.