‘Carnage’ a funny but slight Polanski film

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Carnage

Directed by Roman Polanski

Written by Roman Polanski and Yasmina Reza

2011, France/Germany/Spain

Roman Polanski has made his first comedy since 1972’s What?, and it’s very funny.  Comedy is the easiest and the hardest genre to review.  The biggest question is how many laughs does the film contain, but you have to pinpoint why it made you laugh and if the film reaches any kind of transcendence.

Carnage, adapted from Yasmina Reza’s hit play God’s of Carnage, is quite funny, and one of the better comedies of 2011.  On paper, Polanski might seem like an odd choice to adapt Reza’s play (adapted by Christopher Hampton for the Brodway production) but it actually is a perfect match when you think about it.  Polanski made his name in the 60’s and 70’s doing single-location films like The Tennant and Repulsion, and Carnage, with the exception of the opening and closing shots, doesn’t leave the New York brownstone owned by Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly).

The plot is quite simple.  Penelope and Michael’s son was injured in a playground fight by the son of Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz).  Nancy and Alan have agreed to meet at Penelope and Michael’s brownstone to settle the matter like adults.  Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for the audience, as the evening progresses, each of these adults starts acting like children, engaging in verbal spats and fights that belong on a playground.

Reza’s plays tend to have a mean streak in them.  There is no sentimentality, and they feature adults acting like little children over small matters.  Just look at her other play Art, wherein three friends gather to celebrate one of the friends’ engagement, and they end up getting into a huge fight over his newly acquired painting.

Polanski’s film retains this mean streak.  The ending is not sentimental, and we do not feel that any of the main characters have learned a lesson.  He is able to make the film as cinematic as possible using dutch angles and tracking shots.  We also get a prologue at the beginning of the film showing the conflict on the playground and a scene at the end that also takes place on the playground.

However, the biggest reason to see this film is that it is very funny.  It’s not funny in an intellectual or clever way, either.  The four actors are well-cast, with Waltz, who does an impressive American accent, being the standout.  He is the straight man, and his performance as the uptight businessman is the most restrained.  Reilly is also a hoot to watch as the impotent husband who wants so badly to come out of his shell.  Winslet and Foster both have fun letting it rip in the film’s two juiciest roles, and it is a pleasure to see two dramatic heavyweights getting a chance to do a broad comedy.

The film is mercifully short at 79 minutes, and this is the correct running time for a film like this.  Unfortunately, it does leave the film feeling rather slight and, when compared with last year’s masterful The Ghost Writer, like fluff.  Is this really something that a filmmaker as gifted as Polanski should be doing now?  That may be beside the point, though, as it’s impossible to deny that Carnage works solidly as a comedy.

Josh Youngerman

 

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