November 6, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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CARNAGE:  Watch It At Home – Polanski and All-Star Cast Miss the Bullseye


The trick about CARNAGE, which is based on the Tony Award-winning play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, is that despite its pedigree, and the big names usually associated with it, it’s more of a game than a revelation.  The story of a civilized pair of upper-middle-class urbanite couples who inevitably devolve, as the title implies, to a state of unruly barbarism, there’s really no more to the story and theme than that; the pleasures of the work come from the clockwork precision with which the foursome’s gears break down.

Roman Polanski’s film version (he co-wrote the screenplay with Reza as well as directing), which showed this week at the AFI Film Festival before beginning its theatrical run on December 16, makes few substantive changes to the original work, apart from the not-inconsiderable insertion of a new beginning and ending. (Oddly, the movie also changes the names of the female characters and the children.)  However, even though it delivers a fair share of entertainment and may well find a mainstream audience, Carnage never quite masters the tone needed to maximize the play’s nasty fun.


The action of Carnage is almost completely confined to the apartment of Penelope and Michael (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), whose 11-year old son Ethan has been hit in the face with a stick by Zachary, the son of Nancy and Alan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), resulting in the loss of 2 teeth.  The parents have gotten together to try and work out a plan of action for their children, with some recognition of wrongdoing and an apology. It all begins cordially enough, the four of them impressed by their own graciousness, but as Michael and especially Penelope press the savagery of the beating, Nancy and Alan start to defend their son, and gradually the bickering between the four moves from their sons’ actions to the ways they’re all getting on each others’ nerves.  Alan, a lawyer defending a pharmaceutical firm accused of selling unsafe products, won’t get off his cell phone; Penelope has a tendency to stridency; Michael is extravagantly uninterested; and Nancy is increasingly sick to her stomach, which won’t end well.  Things continue to escalate, until race, politics, and gender are part of the verbal warfare, and good manners are but a dim memory.  The general idea, of course, explicitly stated by one of the characters, is that the God of Carnage rules over us all, and underneath our sheen of sophistication, we’re all a bad afternoon away from becoming animals.

A film like this, with few actors and minimal settings, is so focused that every creative decision is subject to an acid test; the gold standard is probably Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a play to which God of Carnage certainly owes a great debt.  That cast of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal and Sandy Dennis were permanently etched into the history of their roles (Taylor and Dennis spent much of the rest of their careers playing variations of those parts), and the film made the reputations of Nichols and cinematographer Haskell Wexler.


Polanski’s decisions in Carnage are less successful, beginning with the cast.  It’s not that any of the actors are less than superbly talented, but especially for anyone who’s seen the US cast of the NY/LA production, they’re not ideal for their roles, especially since Polanski plays the action naturalistically, instead of for stylized comedy. John C. Reilly, not unexpectedly, is by far the most skilled at catching every laugh in his part, but he doesn’t have the aura of threat James Gandolfini had on stage (when Gandolfini said that his wife had dressed him up as a liberal for the occasion, it made perfect sense).  Waltz, on the other hand, may have been better suited for the role of Michael–his aggression as Alan seems second-nature, not surprising as it was when Jeff Daniels played the part.  Foster simply isn’t as funny as Marcia Gay Harden was on stage, and Winslet, who probably fares the best of the four, doesn’t have the demure quality that made Hope Davis’ explosive illness so hilarious in the play.

There are other flaws.  Polanski’s decision to show the boys at the beginning and end leads to a far too pat conclusion.  The editing choices, often breaking up the action for overly emphatic close-ups, hurt the rhythm of the performances.  Although Dean Tavoularis’ well-financed Brooklyn apartment design is impeccable, Pawel Edelman’s digital photography is unimpressive.

Carnage is, despite these shortcomings, an entertaining, fluidly staged piece of work–and certainly brisk, at 80 minutes including full credits.  It’s always fun to watch classy actors fight tooth and nail, and whether or not they’re perfectly cast, these four are fine company.  The play was never a masterpiece to begin with, so it’s not as though the potential for a classic was wasted here.  Much like its characters, though, this Carnage doesn’t manage to live up to its best possible self.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."