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Theatrical Review

Sony Pictures Classics; 80 minutes

Director: Roman Polanski

Written by on December 15, 2011 

The next time Roman Polanski confronts material with roots in the theater, I won’t be looking forward to it. Carnage, his thoroughly disappointing adaptation of Yasmina Reza‘s acclaimed, award-winning play, turns out to be little more than a flimsy, unimportant exercise in banality. In that way, the film could almost be thought of as a close cousin to David Cronenberg‘s A Dangerous Method — both films turn historically controversial filmmakers into vessels of surprisingly triviality. And, indeed, that’s the worst aspect of Carnage — how inconsequential it all seems, and how instantly dismissable it becomes.

The film runs for a slim 80 minutes and has about five funny lines. (Do the math — that’s not enough for me, perhaps it will be for you.) That would be less of a problem if the domestic disputes that arise between the story’s four central players — Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope (Jodie Foster) Longstreet and Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet) Cowan — carried any dramatic or psychological weight whatsoever. They don’t. Their petty conversations, which later turn into alcohol-fueled shouting matches, add up to nothing more than a messy, frivolous time-waster.

The story’s trigger, shown in a wholly unnecessary opening-credits sequence, is that the sons of each married couple became entangled in an argument at recess, resulting in one of them snipping the other’s face with a stick and causing pricy teeth damage. The Cowans, the parents of the agressor, arrive at the home of the Longstreets and are greeted warmly. They seem to agree calmly that they will settle this dispute with ease.

But, for some reason, co-writers Polanski and Reza think that these are a group of people worth revolving a feature-length film around, so they give Waltz’s character a cell phone that keeps the four individuals intertwined in a stuffy New York apartment for far longer than is necessary. After seeing the film, I’m all the more intrigued to discover what was so praised about the stage version — even with Reza’s involvement, the adapted screenplay has the stench of a first-draft riff on an experimental premise.

Indeed, the characters are written with such broad, uninteresting strokes that even this cast of actors can’t make any element of the material sing. It’s not that the performances are bad — though I’d argue Foster steps outside of her bounds on one-too-many occasions — it’s that they’re simply not given anything to work with. If it weren’t for Waltz’s incessantly irritating cell phone, I’m not sure I’d remember anything about this bland-as-beige group.

There’s nothing especially intriguing about the film’s visual approach, either. The film reunites Polanski with cinematographer Paweł Edelman, who lent a gripping sense of dread to the proceedings of Polanski’s previous The Ghost Writer. Here, however, the photographic landscape is as dull and commonplace as the characters themselves. That’s not usually a winning combination.

The saving grace of Carnage is that 80-minute runtime. For the most part, a film that short can only be so bad. And while the minutes of Carnage don’t exactly race by, it’s a short ride, and you’re in and out of the theater before you know it. But try and remember the last Roman Polanski movie you forgot about the second after watching it. That’s the letdown of Carnage. There’s no sense of Polanski challenging himself or the audience.

(Note: I do hope, by the way, that the great Alexandre Desplat took home a nice paycheck for his musical score, which is used solely in the opening and closing credits.)

Carnage will begin its limited theatrical release on Friday, December 16.


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