It’s hard to discuss the Oscar chances of the cast of Carnage without thinking of all four fuming co-leads as being yet more hamsters on the Academy’s wheel (a hamster, after all, ends up being one of the sharper elements of Roman Polanski’s latest). Such is not to say, necessarily, that Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz took their roles with a mind for rewards beyond the artistic (this is no blatantly baity project), but any decent thespian who signs on for an upper-middlebrow movie bound for release between October and January surely knows he’s tossing himself into a repetitive race for largely-unattainable gold. Carnage is a curious specimen in terms of Oscar probability. It has an enviable batch of top talents, and it’s attractively sophisticated, yet it bucks norms of even the talking-room subgenre in which it’s classified. Without seeing a frame of it, one might rightfully assume the film would go the way of Doubt, with all members of its actorly quartet clinching nominations for reinterpreting their stage-originated roles, but that likely won’t happen here. The already-crowded fields notwithstanding, con can match pro in the case of each performer.
God Of Carnage (#1–10 of 3)
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!
In Woody Allen’s great film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alan Alda has a whole bit about the secret of comedy (“It’s…tragedy…plus time”), but does such a rule apply to the theater as well? In the case of Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning God of Carnage, the playwright would agree that her play is a tragedy (reportedly, she is often puzzled by how American audiences find it so funny). But the third cast to inhabit this play’s ensemble has finally nailed the tricky challenge of playing the drama of the piece which, in effect, unearths Reza’s work as a bit more than a Brooklyn elite gab-a-thon. I’ll freely admit: I wasn’t much of a fan of Carnage at this time last year. Despite the stellar cast and Matthew Warchus’s expert direction, it seemed to me a Möbius strip of a concoction with too much contrivance at its center. (Why do the Raleighs keep heading to the door only to constantly wind up back on the Novacks’ couch?) People laughed their heads off, sometimes at just the right intervals, but I had hoped for a deeper, more resonant experience that sadly never came.
Well, tonight I’m going to dine on some crow, because not only was I one of the people chuckling heartily this time, but Reza’s play had sharper focus than it had ever revealed previously. Sometimes all it takes is just the right cast to modify something into fully operational machinery. And while the play still has those pesky contrivances that gnaw at you, the new quartet (Dylan Baker, Jeff Daniels, Lucy Liu, Janet McTeer) fully realize the power of words, and instead of going straight for the gut laughs, bring a more organic fluidity to the (literal) table. The tone is more contemplative this time, less manic, though startlingly, the play seems to move at an even steadier clip.