Friday, December 16, 2011


A Quick, Dirty Verbal War Of The Roses (And Tulips) In Polanski's Brooklyn

John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster as Michael and Penelope Longstreet in Roman Polanski's "Carnage". 
Sony Pictures Classics


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, December 16, 2011

Roman Polanski's "Carnage", a savage satirical comedy about four verbally-sparring parents in Brooklyn, is a riveting powerhouse.  Lean, razor-sharp and traveling at the speed of quicksilver, this brisk comedy of manners and the impoliteness that ensues after a child is struck by another child in a Brooklyn park features fine performances, especially from Christoph Waltz.

Based on Yasmina Reza's acclaimed play "The God Of Carnage", "Carnage" retains the play's intimate format, a conversation piece taking place in real-time, largely in one room of Penelope and Michael Longstreet's (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) Brooklyn Heights house.  At the start Longstreet son Ethan has been struck in the mouth with a stick by Zachary, the son of Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Mr. Waltz), and the latter couple stops by the house to discuss the matter. 

Penelope is a writer who cares about the African continent and defends her passion for it.  Punctilious, and carrying more than a whiff of self-righteous liberal Upper West Side elitism, Penelope embellishes her son's plight as a "victim", while her jolly and immature husband Michael, a salesman, tries to smooth out rough edges with Nancy, a prim investment banker, and Alan, an inconsiderate high-powered lawyer who can't divorce himself from his cell phone for more than three minutes at a time.  Interventions and conveniences keep the Cowans, a busy couple, moored at the Longstreets, for over an hour.

The more the two couples talk, the more the intensity of their discussion and passion brews.  These petty upper-middle class folk bicker and fight harder than the children they claim to defend, especially Ms. Foster, whipped up into an agitation and hysteria that is funny and intense.  Her self-sanctified Penelope may be the source of veiled racism ("I don't know what language I have to speak to that woman in," she says of the housekeeper, who has put food in the wrong place in the fridge.)  Mr. Waltz plays the breezily disaffected Alan superbly, with all the noblesse oblige of royalty.  He may as well be saying, "let them eat cake" when referring to the pugnacious kids in question (whom we never see up close.)  Always on the edge here with phenomenal comic timing, Mr. Waltz fashions a cavalier character whose self-absorbed attitude has obviously had an effect on the Cowans' only child, who has presumably acted out to get attention from his neglectful parents.

Filmed in Paris, "Carnage" demonstrates that its miserable adults are bigger, nastier kids than their own progeny.  The apple doesn't fall far (enough) from the tree.  The film slyly shows the opening conflict between the children at an extreme distance to further amplify the trivial event, wildly out of balance with the exaggeration of crisis that the warring, self-indulgent parents will fight over.  Their ugliness is a crime bigger than any pre-teen assault that may have transpired at the start, and their hostilities leave them indifferent and intractable.  An attempt at crisis management between educated (and supposedly mature) adults becomes explosive and disastrous.

There's a tense scene in which Alan and Michael talk shop sarcastically.  Alan has a smile of the teeth of a carving knife, ready to eviscerate the pretense, while Michael's cold, beady eyes look as if they will shoot lasers into Alan's heart.  It's a funny yet chilling moment that is all Polanski, smacking of the tension in powerful dramas "Knife In The Water", "Repulsion", "Cul-De-Sac" or "Rosemary's Baby".  Mr. Polanski (who wrote the adapted screenplay with Ms. Reza) is perfect for this material, as his keen sense of humor and slightly off-kilter camera angles work well. 

"Carnage" refers to the idea of the "God Of Carnage" -- that conflict is inherent in the nature of human beings and has been part of the law of nature forever -- and one of the characters mentions this during what will be a very eventful night.  Battle lines and allegiances switch, and symbols of masculinity and femininity -- symbols that personify status or pretense or both -- will be destroyed or tarnished.

None of the parents of "Carnage", as ardently as they claim to fight for their kids, seem as interested in their welfare as they are in tooting their own selfish horn.  The truth is that they feel entitled enough to spend about 80 minutes arguing in semantic circles and strut their posturing peacock feathers.  Penelope may just be the biggest racist of them all.

A farce of the highest order, "Carnage" is wicked entertainment, the kind that will have you energized and laughing at the ribald honesty that flows, whether alcohol-induced or otherwise.  There will be Archie Bunkers and June Cleavers and Ralph Kramdens and Jane Goodalls but the truth will always come out, ready or not.

With (the telephone voices of): Joe Rezwin, Nathan Rippy, Tanya Lopert, Julie Adams.

"Carnage" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language.  The film's running time is one hour and 19 minutes.

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