The most striking thing about Carnage, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yazmin Reza’s stiff but satisfying stage play God of Carnage, is how much funnier it is than its source material. Polanski, who co-adapted the film’s screenplay with Reza, emphasizes the absurd nature of Reza’s blackly comic moral play. His leavening of God of Carnage’s bleak sense of humor is apparent just from the way that he replaced loutish but menacing James Gandolfini with patently non-threatening John C. Reilly in the role of Michael, one of God of Carnage’s four main characters. In Polanski’s hands, what was once a brooding Pinter-esque update of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is now more like a broad comedy. Except instead of sitcom-style humor you get jokes indiscriminately lobbed at the expense of four ethically bankrupt petit bourgeois know-nothings. And these are the film’s only protagonists!
After the Cowans’ son beats up the Longstreets’ boy, concerned parents Michael and Penelope Longstreet (Reilly and Jodie Foster) try to shame Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Chistoph Waltz) into feeling sorry. The two couples seem capable of resolving their difference amicably. But every time Nancy and Alan try to leave the Longstreets’ lavish apartment, Penelope, a bleeding-heart ultra-liberal, butts heads with Alan, a neo-con yuppie, over semantics and the group goes back to making passive-aggressive small talk.
Watching the Cowans try and fail to get into the elevator and away from the Longstreets’ apartment is not only a great running gag, it’s also a significant departure from Reza’s play. God of Carnage is a chamber drama and hence doesn’t show us a world outside of the Longstreets’ flat. Carnage is almost like a Buñuelian sitcom: The door to the outside world is always open, but nobody is capable of leaving.
Once we reach the hallway and look back in, Michael and Penelope’s apartment looks tiny. But on the inside, it looks enormous. Polanski presents the Longstreets’ living room as a Russian doll. Each new piece of furniture that he shows us is compartmentalized and separated from the rest of the room. Eventually, the apartment seems like an apartment-shaped Tardis.
In this way, Polanski is even more meticulous than Reza originally was at mercilessly disarming his characters. For example, he goes out of his way to show Michael ogling a bottle of 18-year-old Scotch. The fact that we have to have a seconds-long shot of him hesitantly eyeing the bottle suggests that, as Penelope insists, every action means something and no gesture is superficial. But Reilly’s comically reluctant look disproves that. He’s not thinking of anything beyond whether or not he should waste his good Scotch or not. It’s not a decision fraught with meaning with a capital M. But it can be seen that way through the eyes of frantic Penelope or anyone else paranoiac enough to look for hidden truth in mundane activities.
That’s basically the crux of Carnage’s conflict: two groups of parents politely try to take their roles as parents seriously after one boy thoughtlessly lashes out at another. As Alan puts it, the only one that’s really concerned about this event is Penelope, who insists that they meet in order to prove that they have “a sense of community.” Foster’s performance-long meltdown is astounding because she’s the only one that’s actively distressed by the way that the Cowans’ and Michael’s collective façade of communal niceness has almost instantly disintegrated.
After a comically cataclysmic event occurs, the gloves really come off, the alcohol gets broken out and the bad manners really come out. And that’s when everyone, especially Penelope, really starts to lose it. By this point, cinematographer Pawel Edelman’s camera, which employs a number of mid-range to super close-ups, affects the stance of a drunken, leering spectator. We’re precariously perched right up against Polanski’s subjects’ faces as they declaim about how little respect they have for anyone or anything but themselves. This confrontational and compartmentalized view of Reza and Polanski’s characters shows us that this group is no longer united by a sense of love, family or friendship. Instead, they are, without exception, trapped by their petty individual concerns. And in the world according to Polanski, that’s very funny.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.