Friday, December 23, 2011
Starring: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz
By Greg Klymkiw
I had to see Carnage again to experience everything I missed the first time. It's the funniest movie of the year, so be prepared to laugh so hard that you too will need to see it a second time. Then, you'll probably want to see it a third time - just because it's so terrific.
The movie is also blessed with the distinction of being one of the best stage-to-screen adaptations ever committed to film. Based on Yasmina Reza's award-winning play "God of Carnage", the author could not have asked for a better director than the great Roman Polanski to guide its four characters through a mud-swamped, mustard-gas-infused battlefield of nasty sniping - not in Beirut, mind you, but within the upscale luxury of a lovely New York apartment.
So much of Reza's ferocious knee-slapping dialogue is worthy of that which pulsates through Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf". Though overall the play/movie as a whole is not as dangerously devastating as Albee's classic four-hander, (nothing ever could/would be) Carnage is, as a movie, so much more honest and brilliant than, say, the fake nastiness of such overrated crap as Alan Ball's screenplay for American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes. With American Beauty and his loathsome screen adaptation of Revolutionary Road, the marginally talented Mendes specializes, it seems, in rendering drama that purports to expose all the raw nerve endings of human existence, but does so for those who only pretend they like the lower depths of domestic bile puked up on a platter - but really don't.
Carnage, on the other hand, expunges its smorgasbord of bilious goods with Polanski's trademark aplomb and sheer delicious, vicious glee. (There's even a great moment in the movie that comes close to the shock and hilarity of the now-famous Trelkovsky-in-the-park sequence in The Tenant.) This picture is possibly even more claustrophobic than all of Polanski's previous "apartment" pictures combined - though it's brilliantly bookended with (and scored by the wonderful Alexander Desplat) by two phenomenal exterior sequences. Other than those, though, we're smack dab in the living room, kitchen and hallway of an apartment.
Two relatively affluent 40-something couples meet over coffee and cobbler to discuss, in a civilized manner, the fisticuffs which broke out between their respective pre-teen sons. The conversation zig-zags between several topics, all related in some fashion to the initial offending action. However, once the coffee and cobbler is abandoned in favour of a bottle of scotch, the relative restraint gives way to a no-holds-barred, rock-em-sock-em, to-the-death cage match of verbal assaults and, much to everyone's surprise, an uncorking of everything that's wrong with both marriages.
The hosts of this afternoon meeting of minds are clearly the odd couple of the two. Michael (John C. Reilly) is a borderline boor who runs a successful wholesale firm that specializes in fixtures. His wife Penelope (Jodie Foster) is a pinched prig with a penchant for fine art catalogues and coffee table books and labours in her not-so successful career as an author (her latest book is about the suffering of Darfur). The guests of the host couple seem, on the surface, a perfect fit. Alan (Christoph Waltz) is a sleazy lawyer who represents dubious pharmaceutical companies and Nancy (Kate Winslet) is a chicly-attired trophy wife.
As the afternoon progresses, battle lines are drawn, re-drawn and the balance of power shifts ever so deftly from one side to the other. In no time, the blades come out. The eviscerations are at first levelled from hosts to guests and vice-versa, but when each respective husband and wife begin on each other, the nasty accusations and finger pointing become far more revelatory than any of the characters bargained for that day.
When Michael, the seemingly happy-go-lucky schlub opines, "We're born alone and we die alone," he quickly adds, "Does anyone want a little scotch?" Offering booze to quell a tense situation, is frankly akin to aiming a thermonuclear device at the Hoover Dam.
The cast is uniformly fine. Reilly plays on his goofy, hangdog appeal but brings a heretofore unexplored malevolence to his bag of thespian tricks. Jodie Foster delivers another trademark slender thread performance, but reveals a terrific sense of humour. Kate Winslet beguiles us with her full-figured beauty, but eventually lets rip with her fair share of verbal daggers. Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) proves again why he is one of the best actors working today - he careens from cutthroat to pathetically needy and everything in between.
Some critics who should know better (my familiar refrain), have admired the movie grudgingly, but toss it off as a "filmed play". Nothing could be further from the truth. Polanski is a master of enclosed spaces (Repulsion, The Tenant, Rosemary's Baby, etc.). His deft camera placement and movement is pure cinema. More importantly, he adheres to what ultimately makes the best big-screen adaptations of theatre - he refuses, by and large, to "open-up" the action.
This knee-jerk attempt by filmmakers to render their work more cinematic serves - more often than not - to dilute the power of the text and thus rendering it MORE lacking in the hallmarks of cinematic storytelling. (Let's NOT forget the moronic decision on the part of director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman to "open up" the otherwise GREAT film version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf by shifting the locale briefly to a nearby roadside bar. The sequence sticks out like a sore thumb.)
Polanski refuses to take the easy way out. He throws us into the four walls of this apartment and forces us, for eighty minutes, to engage in the superb verbal jousts which, I must assert are plenty nasty and screamingly funny. Carnage is ultimately a class act all the way and once again, Roman Polanski proves he's one of the great living filmmakers.
Oh, and guess what? It's about adults.
"Carnage" is being released by Mongrel Media and will be seen in both mainstream cinemas and at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as the cherry on the sundae of a superb mini-retrospective of Polanski's claustrophobic masterworks.