Roman Polanski takes the experience of watching Yasmina Reza's play, God of Carnage, and amplifies the tension, turns anger into absurdity and captures an entire universe in, essentially, two and a half rooms of a Brooklyn apartment in the film, Carnage.
The apartment belongs to Michael and Penelope Longstreet and, as embodied by John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster, they're an aspiring Park Slope couple, living a solidly comfortable but not astonishingly abundant existence, from all evidence.
Their visitors -- and the only other two characters in the film (and play) -- are the Cowans, Alan and Nancy (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet). They're all making nice over some apple and pear cobbler, while trying to assign (and avoid being assigned) blame in a schoolyard scuffle. The Cowans' son has smacked the Longstreets' son in the face with a stick, loosening teeth and shredding a lip, apparently because the young Longstreet referred to the young Cowan as a snitch.
But niceties are always too nice -- and so attempts to be grown-ups quickly degenerate into a calculation that is part financial and part power-based: Who's supposed to pay for all this and, more importantly, who can be held responsible? Who owns the moral high ground?
The answer pretty quickly becomes obvious: No one will take the high road in this snowballing squabble. They'd all like to, but something keeps getting in their way: their individual self-serving natures.
Some might call it class warfare but that's too simplistic. Alan is a smug attorney, constantly interrupting the conversation (or argument) to monitor a cell-phone-borne disaster in the making: a client, a drug company, which may not have been forthcoming with research about harmful side effects of a popular pharmaceutical. Michael, by contrast, is a merchant of kitchen and bathroom fixtures. Alan looks down his nose at Michael (enhanced by the Bob Hope scope of Waltz's nose) and Michael and Penelope think Alan and Nancy are stuffy snobs.
I've seen this play three times -- twice on Broadway with different casts, once in a regional theater. And even the first time I saw the film, I wasn't convinced that it was about anything deeper than the unexpected consequences of a flat-out argument between seemingly civilized people.
In Reza's (and Polanski's) world, the result is a snarling, shifting set of alliances. It is, to be sure, initially family versus family, each looking for the other to somehow make it all right. But that particular friction eventually gives way to husband-vs.-wife arguments and then husbands-vs.-wives.
By the end, even as they've been trying to discuss what a fair solution would be, they wind up as solo agents, each nurturing anger or bile or both, squared off against a world that seems to be a nonstop assault in one way or the other.
Still, there are a couple of big physical moments -- trademarks from the stage show -- that don't pack the wallop (and really can't be expected to) that they did in the confined space of a theater. But the airless, almost claustrophobic quality of the apartment is enhanced by Polanski's use of wide-angle lenses.
Each of these actors finds new qualities in these characters. Winslet's stodgy Nancy gets an increasingly belligerent buzz on, but makes her drunken anger about the impulses this character has spent suppressing until now. Waltz is her button-pushing mate, with a matching temperament of polished manners barely covering a disdainful impatience. You can read this couple as a team, whether they were married or not.
Foster and Reilly, on the other hand, are a couple that must, at one point, have been a product of a passion that no longer exists -- because there's nothing else that these two people seem to have in common. They're married but they're tense, as though they've forgotten what they had to talk about. So their impulses -- to watch the mate's back, or to stab it -- sometimes get confused.
Carnage refocuses itself in this film. Unlike the play, it is not simply about the breakdown of civilization -- or at least, of civilized behavior. It's about the very untwining of the ties that shelter civilization from the dominance of self-interest.
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