January 20, 2012

The kids are alright; the parents aren't

Roman Polanski’s latest film, Carnage, is a meditation on many themes close to the director’s own biography: justice, political correctness, family life, and the merits of good cobbler. Filmed shortly after his release from house arrest, Carnage traps the viewer in a small New York loft with two couples as they discuss an act of playground violence involving their children. As the film progresses and tensions rise, the viewer gradually comes to care less about the children at the heart of this conflict and more about the parents. In fact, most of the film’s fun comes from seeing what vitriol each participant will lob at the next.

Adapted from a play, God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, the film certainly feels like a theatrical production. The film is very short, clocking in at a sparse 85 minutes. The cast is small and intimate, effectively set in a single location. Shots of a bathroom and kitchen complement the typical framing of the parents moving around a coffee table, and the cinematography is nothing to write home about. In adapting the play, Polanski did not add much other than a short prologue that gives the viewer a chance to see the children’s violence firsthand and an all-too-ironic conclusion running during the credits (which I won’t spoil here).

The film is entertaining, if you’re the sort of viewer inclined to watch people shout at each other for just over an hour. In fact, the film seems almost like an extended episode of Seinfeld: horrible people, specifically New Yorkers, yelling about some specific conflict and everything (or is it nothing?) in between. The four characters all invoke particular archetypes, but these ebb and flow throughout the film in a surprisingly organic way, as do the parents’ alliances. What starts as an amicable but tense discussion develops into couple against couple before moving to everyone for him/herself, men versus women, three taking on one, moments of clarity, and everything in between. The situation hardly improves once they break out the scotch.

The cast seems to work perfectly with one another and they hold the film up when it might otherwise languish. Christoph Waltz of Inglourious Basterds fame is particularly enjoyable. He lurks about the apartment, clearly reluctant to have come for the conversation but visibly enjoying himself once the argument starts boiling over. He speaks curtly, calls his son a maniac, and spends as much time talking business over the phone as he does to the people in front of him. Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, and John C. Reilly round out the cast, and all play their parts consummately. One benefit of the film over the play is the camera’s ability to capture the subtleties of each performance and direct the audience’s attention to them.

Still, the film never seems to transcend the feel of a play. Line pickups sometimes feel slow, but had they been faster the film would have been even shorter. As voices and tension rise, one character always feels the need to remind everyone why they are there: to talk about their kids, whom they seem all too inclined to forget. These punctuations break up the dialogue slightly and feel like a trick, as if Polanski wants to restrain the argument and show us how easy it is to develop a brand new one.

The parents’ range of topics to argue about gives viewers the film’s best scenes. They argue about everything from proper removal of pets to what the grenade launchers used in Africa are called.. Embracing a sense of schadenfreude is the best thing you can do sitting in the theater. If you watch the movie and think, “Oh, the injustice! She’s concerned about suffering in Africa and yet her priceless art books get ruined!” you’re doing it wrong. Polanski doesn’t want you to feel sorry for these four souls he’s thrown into a tiny room; he wants you to enjoy the fact that it’s the worst day of their lives. It may walk like a play and talk like a play, but that won’t stop you from embracing the god of carnage and laughing all the way home.