Directed by Roman Polanski
Opens Jan. 13
It’s so much fun watching Christoph Waltz eat dessert. It’s fun watching him do most things really, but first in his breakout role as a Nazi officer in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and now as a top-dollar New York corporate lawyer in Roman Polanski’s Carnage, he provides such pleasure as you watch him unabashedly enjoy sweets and silkily say terrible things. Sometimes what he says here isn’t so terrible, in truth, but Polanski’s screen adaptation of playwright Yasmina Reza’s black comedy God of Carnage is so hemmed in and tiresome and unsatisfying that you start to look forward to the camera turning Waltz’s way so he can deadpan another of Reza’s lines or smirk just so. You start hoping his cell phone will ring yet again so you can hear what new variation he puts on his purred, “Yes, Walter” greeting. Trapped in a Brooklyn apartment with him and three other characters for 79 minutes that seem longer, you have to take your pleasures where you can find them.
There are a number of actorly pleasures to be found in Carnage, which should be no surprise given the cast. Kate Winslet, who can wear the hell out of a luxe blouse and a pencil skirt, plays Nancy Cowan, Alan’s investment-manager wife. She and Alan have come to the home of Michael Longstreet, a home-fixtures salesman played by John C. Reilly, and his wife Penelope, a “writer” you suspect is more a precious putterer, played by Jodie Foster, to broker a peace agreement. The Cowans’ 11-year-old son thwacked the Longstreets’ 11-year-old in the mouth with a stick during a playground spat, and the action opens on a typewritten agreement of blame and wrong signed by both parties, as polite as a United Nations resolution, if just as binding.
As the small talk over coffee and cobbler goes on, passive-aggressive feints go out and smug defenses go up. Nancy has a tendency to parry statements with a question—“Apple and pear?” in response to an inquiry about cobbler ingredients, her inflection dripping unspecified disapproval. Penelope, strenuously civil and well-meaning urban liberal that she is, can’t help but elbow back between the solicitous lines. Not that she’s so sly: Thanks to her barely bottled hysteria, her son goes from a fat lip and a lost tooth to having “no face left” as the discussion continues. As passions rise and recriminations (and vomit) fly and the scotch comes out, she winds up basically trying to climb Mount Reilly at one point, while he does his usual exemplary overgrown kid. As tends to happen in these chamber pieces, allegiances shift, with the men lining up against the women, the spouses against each other. It’s a subtle moment, but a great one, when Reilly’s Michael starts looking at Alan before he responds to an affront, rather than at Penelope.
Carnage works well enough as a hit-and-run satire of polite middle-class veneer, yuppie smugness, and general pretensions to maturity; the script, adapted by Polanski with Reza, delivers laugh line after laugh line, all character-based. As an overall film, however, it fails. Polanski displays his usual tight camera control, but that isn’t so hard since the action never leaves the apartment. That canned feeling can work fine onstage, but there’s no plausible reason that the Cowans should spend as much time as they do at the Longstreets’ other than the fact that Polanski seems to have no idea what to do but keep them there. The actors are left little option but to get bigger and bigger in their performances, which does their efforts no favors. They aren’t caricatures, exactly, but they never really get to be people either. Foster’s Penelope, for one, is allowed a moment where you can begin to feel for her, but it’s quickly swept aside by more proverbial sound and fury.
And nothing is signified. There’s no turn toward lesson-learned drama, thankfully, but no narrative engine ever cranks up either. The bickering pauses, everyone equally reduced, and the action ends. And then Carnage concludes on a baffling shot. It’s tempting to assume the studio slapped it on there as an attempted salve for an increasingly shrill film about somewhat unlikable characters. If it was Polanski’s idea, it’s baffling to ponder what he was trying to say, or, even more baffling, why he chose this particular way to say it. The worst possible interpretation is that he has even more contempt for the audience than he does for the characters. In any event, it’s the only possible reason you’re not happy to see the film end.