Two couples in a parent trap
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Jan 13, 2012
"Carnage," the movie adaptation of Yasmina Reza's Tony-winning comedy of manners, "God of Carnage," purports to be a satirical skewering of modern-day parenting, its hypocrisies, power plays and smug moralizing.
But in this leaden production - directed in a rare flat-footed outing by Roman Polanski - what are supposed to be transgressive observations about the holy state of parenthood and matrimony instead come across as self-satisfied and shallow as the pieties Reza intends to puncture.
The tiresomeness of "Carnage," which Reza adapted with Polanski for the screen, isn't helped by a case of fatally lopsided casting that finally swamps what should be a smoothly coordinated comic sail.
As the film opens, two couples finish up a meeting regarding their sons, who fought earlier in the day. Whereas Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet easily find their footing as one of those couples - Alan and Nancy Cowan, the prosperous parents of the aggressor in the playground encounter - Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly seem perpetually off balance and ill-matched as Penelope and Michael Longstreet, an activist author and household supplies wholesaler, respectively, whose son took a wallop to the mouth.
Although the Longstreets are clearly aggrieved, they're masking their distress under layers of well-mannered solicitude as they wrap up their confab with the Cowans, who are on the verge of catching the elevator out of the Brooklyn apartment building when Michael and Penelope insist they stay for a cup of coffee and cobbler. What ensues is a real-time, 80-minute verbal roundelay that includes, but doesn't end, with a case of spectacular projectile vomiting.
It isn't spoiling much to describe "Carnage" as an ambitious exercise in Albee-esque dissection of relationships and reversals, a toxic four-hander in which a group of characters - kept together by an invisible centripetal force - pick one another's psychic scabs with increasing candor and bilious contempt.
Presumably the digs and mercurially shifting dynamics worked better when Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini assumed the roles on Broadway (Harden won a Tony for her work in the role assumed here by Foster), but Polanski never finds the pop, fizz or fleetness to make the comedy catch fire.
What's more, he allows his actors - or at least half of them - to flounder painfully in performances that stay mired in talky, declamatory artifice rather than come to warm and funny life. Winslet may be appropriately viper-tongued as the impeccably styled, gimlet-eyed "investment banker" who often sounds like a 21st-century extension of her enraged middle-class housewife in "Revolutionary Road," and Waltz lets his zingers fly with casual finesse between taking calls on his BlackBerry. (Reza clearly intends for that device to appear like a hip, knowing trope, but her winking use of it feels hopelessly dated.)
Watching Foster and Reilly, however, is like watching an entire other movie, with Foster especially at sea when it comes to Penelope, a caricature of outer-borough liberal self-deception (she's working on a book about Darfur, a bleeding-heart "joke" that feels as fish-in-a-barrel lazy as Alan's BlackBerry). Not only does she seem not to be married to Michael, they don't even seem to have met, an impression that only heightens as "Carnage" escalates to its titular resolution (lubricated by amber fluids imbibed to set a land-speed record for inebriation).
By that time, filmgoers are presumably supposed to be laughing uproariously at the posturings and poses of Modern Yuppie Families. Instead they're likely to be yawning at observations that seem mirthlessly trite and timeworn. What ensues in "Carnage" isn't carnage at all, but just a low-stakes bit of disarray - easily cleaned up and swiftly forgotten.