Dec 18, 2011
Roman Polanski has taken a clever but unimpressive play and made it better.
When I saw Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage on Broadway, I was entertained but underwhelmed. It's a neat but rather facile concept -- the veneer of civilization promptly chips away as two sets of parents discuss a fight between their children. The movie, with a screenplay by Reza and Polanski, uses basically the same material but instead of trying too hard for a meaningful message about the human condition, Polanski turns it into a zippy, exciting, mischievous farce. What seemed vulgar and heavy handed on stage, is elegant here.
In theory, adapting this play into a film sounds like a futile enterprise. Why would you want to spend an entire movie watching four people bicker in one living room? Yet in the hands of this master director, you forget you are in one room most of the time. The movie is precisely, elegantly crafted, the camera is perfectly expressive and the nimble, assured pace is bracing. This little chamber piece is a tour de force and master class in directing, with no self-conscious fireworks. (How I wish Polanski had directed We Need To Talk About Kevin). He can teach a thing or two to directors who let style run rampant. With Polanski, style is content; expressive and unobtrusive at the same time.
Polanski's gifts are not only his assured command of the medium; the mise en scene is fantastic and he is a great director of actors. In this version, the characters are more sharply defined. The material benefits from the camera's closeness to the actors' faces. The actors know this and go to town, doing their job with skill and excellence.
The cast is uniformly splendid, topped by John C. Reilly who is absolutely hilarious and pitch perfect as Michael Longstreet, a guy who behind his sweetness hides a good amount of contempt for his high-strung, politically correct wife Penelope, (Jodie Foster); Christoph Waltz as Alan Cowan, a dry, Blackberry wielding corporate lawyer, and Kate Winslet as his composed wife, Nancy. All four work beautifully as an ensemble. I was amazed by the lovely, unflagging flow of their collective energy. Of the four actors, Foster lacks the subtlety of her colleagues, and she seems a little over the top. Yet she is very compelling. She approaches Penelope with a tight, controlling fury and she is believably, valiantly self-righteous. Winslet can make tulips wither with one look, and her transformation from prim and proper corporate wife to drunken mess is flawless. Waltz is drily reptilian as a lawyer from hell, but he is likable because he is blunt. None of the actors condescend to their characters, which is why they are all so winning. It is also worth noting that for such a small film, Polanski recruited the best of the best: the great production designer Dean Tavoularis and costume designer Milena Canonero, the excellent cinematographer Pavel Edelman, and Alexandre Desplat's music is as elegant as the rest of the film. A tasteful Brooklyn apartment has been created on a set in Paris and the narrow views of Brooklyn from the apartment and shots of Brooklyn Bridge park are done with subtle digital effects, since Polanski cannot set foot in the US.
The only thing that falls a bit flat is the ending, which seems abrupt and inconclusive, but Polanski seems much more in command here than last time around with The Ghost Writer. Carnage is a lot of fun.