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Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012

Carnage

A touchy-feely effort comes to blows

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Roman Polanski may never be able to film in America again, but that can't stop him from setting a film here. In adapting Yasmina Reza's Tony-winning play into Carnage, Polanski placed the fractured conversation between two pairs of squabbling parents in a New York apartment, confining Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz within the four walls of a soundstage as they try—or don't try—to act like adults by reconciling a playground fight between their 11-year-old boys. Carnage is a comedy about what happens when a forced effort at a touchy-feely session comes to blows.

Aside from editing and camera placement, the usual methods of moviemaking are pretty much absent. Carnage is essentially a filmed stage play, which places most of the weight on the cast. The four stars make the most of their opportunity to act in the moment, as if a live audience sat outside the frame waiting to laugh in recognition of their foibles.

The Reza-Polanski screenplay concerns an encounter across the divides of class, gender and values real or professed. Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Foster and Reilly) invite Nancy and Alan Cowen (Winslet and Waltz) to their apartment for a session of conflict resolution. A high-end attorney, Alan's annoying business calls on his cell phone continually interrupt the discussion at hand and provide a telling side story of corporate raiding and PR spin. By contrast, Penelope is a part-timer at a bookshop and Michael sells hardware; inevitably, the Cowens' upper-middle-class hauteur collides with the Longstreets' lower-middle-class gregariousness. But Polanski, who hasn't been to the United States since the Carter administration, misses the opportunity to accurately sketch the lifestyle differences. The Longstreets are meant to be shabby chic, but their apartment is large, handsomely appointed and furnished with an expensive kitchen. The income disparity implied by the story is scarcely visible. Moreover, in 21st-century New York, it's unlikely that the Cowen and Longstreet children would attend the same school or romp on the same playground.

But quibbles over the staging can't distract from a brilliantly cagey screenplay that leads the cast through pleasantries and banalities, feigned interest and genuine horror and sputtering irritation and angry outbursts as sobriety sinks into drunkenness. Fissures emerge between husbands and wives and alliances form and dissolve across family lines. The sneering arrogance of Alan, with his Social Darwinism perspective on strength and survival, finds common cause with Michael's inner Archie Bunker. The women are both appalled as their men shed the pretense of civility; Nancy's graciously composed PC veneer cracks easily under pressure, while Penelope's self-righteous pieties only grow more strident.

The comedy is dry—except when Penelope's homey dish of cobbler causes Nancy to throw up—and the execution well timed. Carnage is a class war, a battle of the sexes and a struggle between phony altruism and authentic awfulness. No one wins.n