“Carnage,” a dark comedy from Roman Polanski (“The Pianist”), is an unfortunate depiction of Hollywood’s take on modern parenthood. The stereotypically apathetic fathers and the equally phony mothers are played to perfection by an A-list cast, but we leave the theater with a sense that Polanski took his material too seriously — like he thought his film would hit harder than it really did.
At Rave and the State
Sony Pictures Classis
The movie is like a 75-minute adrenaline rush, quickly picking up speed until it reaches a palpable breaking point. The context behind all the mayhem is an awkward meeting between two couples whose children were recently involved in a physical altercation that resulted in one of the kids losing two teeth.
The victim’s parents are the smugly “politically correct” Penelope (Jodie Foster, “The Silence of the Lambs”) and her crass husband Michael (John C. Reilly, “Step Brothers”). They square off against workaholic, down-to-earth Alan (Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”) and his weary wife Nancy (Kate Winslet, “Titanic”). Things begin slowly enough; both couples hesitantly agree that the best course of action would be to allow the two children to sort out their differences without too much parental involvement.
Penelope, however, takes offense when Alan passively calls her son a snitch for ratting out another boy his age. This initial spark is all that’s needed, and before long, every character has lost any remaining sense of restraint or dignity. First, it’s couple versus couple, then husband against wife and, finally, men against women. Eventually, everyone’s drinking scotch while hurling insults at the closest person.
It’s this spontaneous decomposition of civility that Polanski tried to capture on screen — to somehow expose it as the B.S. it really is. And even though most of the exchanges among the characters are hilariously acerbic and witty, we never get the sense that they’re quite plausible. Rather, it seems as if what’s happening on screen is more a byproduct of how screwed up the characters are. It’s only natural that when you get two failed marriages in the same claustrophobic room, crazy shit is going to happen.
That sense of claustrophobia, which Polanski is known for using so effectively to create volatility between his characters, feels rushed and incomplete this time around. The conversations take place in close proximity, and all four characters are never more than a few feet apart from each other. The problem is that Polanski doesn’t use the camera to make his audience feel like they are a part of the dialogue. The failure to do so allows us to remain coolly detached and adds to the feeling that what’s happening in the movie is not a depiction of real life.
“God of Carnage,” the 2009 play from which this film is adapted, also featured high-caliber actors and superb writing. But somehow, the chemistry between those actors felt more relatable, more believable. In Polanski’s adaptation, the actors are delivering the lines wonderfully, but it looks like they’re just spouting them for the sake of spouting them. The undeniable intention to harm that we saw in the play never surfaces behind the lines in the movie, making Polanski’s anti-civility message seem more and more like an oddity. In short, yes, “Carnage” is funny and entertaining, but it’s also a dark comedy that lacks any real context for darkness.