DIRECTED BY Roman Polanski
STARS Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet
"The book was better" is a common refrain that's been uttered at the close of many a movie adapted from a literary work, but "The play was better" seems to have the upper hand during this particular winter window.
While earning largely positive reviews and faring well at the box office, Steven Spielberg's War Horse has been lambasted in some quarters by those who feel it doesn't measure up to the Tony Award-winning Broadway show (yes, both initially had roots in a children's book, but nobody's really been comparing the film to the kiddie lit). Meanwhile, Roman Polanski's Carnage most likely won't be able to break out of its art-house niche, partly due to many folks (reviewers and patrons alike) stating that it bungles its stage antecedent, likewise a Broadway piece with a Tony pedigree. Originating as a French play before making its way to London (with Ralph Fiennes in the cast) and then New York, Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage proved to be especially popular in the Big Apple, winning Tony Awards for Best Play, Director (Matthew Warchus) and Actress (Marcia Gay Harden) and earning additional nods for the other three stars (James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis). The film version jettisons everyone associated with that production save for original author Reza, who collaborated on the screenplay with Polanski. How it compares to the Broadway show I cannot say — Creative Loafing's budget inexplicably does not provide for me to stay a few days in New York to check it out firsthand — but the screen version is a tasty, wicked treat; to borrow a classic phrase from Sweet Smell of Success, it's a cookie full of arsenic.
After briefly showing two young boys getting into a fight on a Brooklyn playground, the film immediately takes us into the apartment of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), where they're meeting with Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christophe Waltz) to discuss the unfortunate incident wherein the Cowans' son hit the Longstreets' boy with a stick, causing severe damage to his mouth (including the loss of two teeth). Penelope, a high-strung p.c. liberal, always looks as if she's about to internally combust. Her husband Michael is a lunkish working-class sort who lucked into lucrativeness. Alan is a high-powered attorney who doesn't even want to be there, spending most of the time rudely talking on his cell phone. And his wife Nancy appears prim, proper and polite, but she eventually proves to be as volatile as Penelope.
The visit begins on a note of cordiality, even though hints of aggression are already bubbling around the edges of the polite chitchat. Sure enough, it doesn't take long before an all-out assault occurs, with the four adults at each other's throats. The Cowans naturally face off against the Longstreets, but shifting dynamics eventually find enemy lines dividing the men from the women. Penelope's homemade cobbler gets a bad rap. Nancy projectile-vomiting doesn't help the situation. Michael breaking out the booze and cigars in a defiant act of chauvinism adds salt to the wounds. And then there's Alan's accursed cell phone, practically sharing star billing with the flesh-and-blood participants.
If Spielberg managed to open up War Horse in a manner that takes full advantage of cinema's gifts — it's so expansive that it's easy to forget a theatrical version resides in its family tree — Polanski does little to make Carnage look like much more than a filmed play. Aside from the prologue and epilogue involving the kids, this takes place entirely inside the Longstreet apartment and adjacent hallway, with no attempt to temporarily move the characters and their conversation to, say, a restaurant or a Starbucks. Yet because the piece is so well-written and performed — and because it runs a rapid 80 minutes — there's none of that stifling claustrophobia that chokes similar one-horse-town stage adaptations.
Among the quartet, Waltz delivers the best performance, followed by Winslet, Foster and then Reilly lagging behind. As for Polanski, he masterfully orchestrates all the mind-game mayhem — at times, the scenario recalls a more grounded version of Luis Bunuel's surrealist romps The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie — although he above all filmmakers constantly reminds us how important it is to separate the artist's personal life from his public offerings. Polanski has made an astounding number of fine motion pictures over the course of his career, yet I would gladly give up the very existence of this one if it meant that, instead of being free to film it, he had been properly prosecuted and were presently imprisoned for raping a child. But because Carnage does in fact exist, it receives thumbs-up for its sly dissection of middle-to-upper-class airs masking true bourgeoisie brutality.
Go here for a look at the 10 Best & 10 Worst Movies of 2011.