Uneven adaptation of play with an unexpected performances from John C. Reilly
Trying to adapt a stage play into a film like Reza’s “God of Carnage” into a film is a really tough task because of the nature of the play. Trying to keep four actors in one room for 75 minutes for something that ought to last less than half an hour is really tough to do in a film but easier in a stage play. That’s the inherent problem with Roman Polanski’s ,Carnage, a Brooklyn set version of a European stage play: the contrivances. Everything else is fairly remarkable.
The film focuses on two sets of parents coming together over their children. The son of Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly) has been assaulted by the son of Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet). With both parents meeting together at Penelope and Michael’s Brooklyn apartment to draft a letter and discuss the event, the evening quickly turns into something unsettling and illuminating for both couples. As the meeting progresses, the barriers and images both couples have put up of one another come crashing down amidst cell phone chicanery, cobbler and whiskey.
And between the four actors you have a fairly engaging and intriguing comedy with dramatic elements. Considering three of the four have “Academy Award Winner” in front of their names it’s not all that surprising, as Reilly checks in with just a nomination for Chicago, but Polanski doesn’t do much story-telling with them. This is much more of a character study as various incidents reveal things bout both couples that neither wish to come to light. The film is about the unmasking of the truth behind the facades we put up in public. In reality both couples are flawed but put up a strong front.
Polanski handles this in a story-telling manner with one plot device, Alan’s phone, but mainly allows his actors to dictate the pace of the tale. There isn’t much story-telling to be told here; once we get introduced to these characters they peel the layers off the characters through their words and actions as opposed to any dramatic element or overall plot arc.
Penelope and Michael are less affluent but professionals, with salesman Michael always trying to please his writer wife and failing. Alan and Nancy as a couple are more successful but failing due to Alan’s high pressure legal job than anything they’re doing. His ineffectual parenting style is obvious to all and grating on his wife. Both couples are trying to give the allusion that everything is wonderful and that they can handle the situation with their children in a “mature” way but cracks in the façade show up early and often. It’s fascinating to see both of these couples fall apart so quickly, mainly because you have a cast capable of taking you there. But oddly enough it’s the least accomplished actor of the bunch that ends up with the best performance.
It’s odd to think that Reilly, more known for goofball comedies than serious dramatic work, would outshine three Oscar winners. This is the same guy who headlined Step Brothers and Walk Hard, amongst others, but Reilly is given the toughest character of the bunch. Michael is a guy we all know; he’s the one that always trying to please his wife and put on the appearance in front of others. It’s a tough role because it’s less flashy than the other three and more complicated. The best lines in the film are reserved for others in the film; he takes what would almost be a throwaway role in the film and makes it worthwhile. We can see why he’s annoyed by Alan’s posturing as well as his wife’s condescension and bottling it up; this may not have been what he envisioned his marriage and family to become but he’s bound to make it work by any means.
The problem is that in order to plausibly keep both couples in the same room for an extended period of time Polanski has to rely on plot contrivances at nearly regular intervals to do so. It gets to the point by the end that keeping Alan and Nancy from leaving is less plausible. These aren’t two couples enjoying one another’s company despite a negative circumstance bringing them together; both are imploding at the same time and it isn’t pretty.
Carnage remains, then, a fairly solid actor’s workshop with just enough holding it together to make it worthwhile.
Director: Roman Polanski Notable Cast: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly Writer(s): Yasmina Reza & Roman Polanski, based on the play “God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.