I’m always concerned when a play is adapted for the screen. Part of me wants to believe it will rise above the confined nature of a stage production, but most of them don’t get past the singular setting and the contrivances that hinder most adapations. As much as I hate to say it, Roman Polanski’s newest effort, Carnage, based on the stage play God of Carnage, is afflicted by the aforementioned issues. Carnage dictates the rising tension between two sets of parents who come together to discuss a violent act that occurs between their respective sons. The set of parents with the leverage is the Longstreets (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly). Their son, as shown in the opening credits, was hit in the face with a stick by the son of the Cowan’s (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz). In an attempt to squeeze an apology and understanding out of the Cowan’s, the Longstreets invite them over for a quick discussion about their sons’ violent moment. Considering they’re adults, both sets of parents make a concerted effort to keep things cordial and politically correct. That is until little turns of phrases, insinuations and frustration gets the best of them.
Soon, these well to do parents are verbally assaulting one another about their pet names, their views on childhood and their marriages. Watching such a minor issue evolve into one massive, tangential blow up allows for a few comedic gems. What’s not to like about each parent losing their cool and becoming foolish caricatures? There’d be a lot to like if the characters were saying something interesting or weren’t forced together by contrivance. See, the problem with Carnage is that these characters shouldn’t be together long enough for the movie to exist. Despite the Cowan’s disinterest in the Longstreets, they continuously find themselves confined to the Longstreet’s apartment. The Cowans attempt many times to leave, only to inexplicably stay in the presence of people they mock in whispers. It’s almost as if they’re masochists that get off on annoyance. The same can be said for the Longstreets. They are beyond annoyed with the Cowans, but their faux attempts to be respectful are self-defeating.
Honestly, the film shouldn’t even get past the ten minute mark. Speaking to this sentiment is Kate Winslet’s character, who flat-out inquires why she’s still even there. The question is funny, but when one thinks about it, there truly is no reason for them to be there. A joke about these loathsome goofballs ends up being joke on us. But the real answer to her question is contrivance. Once more, considering the film takes place in one location, it feels terribly restrained. Polanski has demonstrated throughout his career that he can take a singular place and make it insufferable. Case and point: Repulsion, a film that finds a woman’s sexual nightmares being heightened by her coffin like apartment. Of course, comparing a psychological thriller with an intended comedy isn’t fair. Regardless of the difference in genre, Polanski has a terrific understanding of how to use a singular space to ratchet up turmoil within and between characters.
Polanski, who also wrote the screenplay with Yasmina Reza (writer of the play), can’t seem to utilize the space in a manner that is effective. The best he can do is have the characters constantly switching seats. This doesn’t make for dynamic interactions or anything visually stimulating. At best this lends itself to a fantastic drinking game where viewers take a drink when a character promptly switches seats. It’s like a game of musical chairs, minus the music and enjoyment. The film doesn’t entirely fall flat on its face. All of the actors deliver a few madcap moments that are more than enough to illicit a chuckle. Waltz is especially terrific as a character who constantly delivers glib remarks, while continuously disrupting the flow of cordial discourse with his invasive phone calls. But this acting showcase can’t save the film from feeling small and insignificant. For as much as these characters speak, they say very little that’s worthwhile.