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Carnage's Harshly True Adaptation

A quartet of top-notch actors star in the adaptation of the Tony-winning play

This semester I was in a class devoted to reading plays and talking about them. Overall, we read about 30 modern American plays and then spent about three hours each week sitting in a small classroom and discussing every aspect of that week’s given reading.

We didn’t read “God Of Carnage,” the Tony-winning play by Yasmina Reza, though. Seeing the film adaptation, retitled “Carnage,” I was reminded of a few we did read. For instance, the Manhattan socialite couples reminded me Flan and Ouisa in John Guare’s “Six Degrees Of Separation” and, in an even stranger coincidence, the claustrophobic setting and chance meeting leading to escalating madness reminded me of Tracy Lett’s “Bug.”

That play, which was also made into a marvelous film, featured a down-on-her-luck waitress who lets a seemingly average war vet stay at her apartment. As it turns out, the vagrant is more than a little mentally unstable and soon he begins to envelope the waitress in his web of psychosis. 

Why do I mention this? Well, other than to show off my extension knowledge of 20th century dramatics (boy, it’s hard to indicate sarcasm in a written article), it’s to say that my mind is tuned to dissecting and theorizing about plays. Those skills came in handy watching “Carnage,” which never quite felt like a fully formed film.

As you can probably tell, I love going to plays and, generally many stage-to-screen adaptations work well without a lot of added new cinematic touches (think “Rabbit Hole” or “Angels In America”). But “Carnage’s” translation isn’t as smooth. It has a great cast, top-notch direction and even an intelligent, well-written script, but it’s not cinematic or terribly memorable. Why is that?

Biting, Vitriolic Truths

Let’s go step by step. The cast here is incredibly small and almost flawless. There’s Penelope and Michael Longstreet (played by Jodie Foster and John C. Reily), a liberal intellectual writer and pluming supplies salesman who lives in a posh New York City apartment. One day, Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), a stock trader and busy lawyer, visit to discuss an altercation between their sons. After school, the son of one couple hit the son of the other with a stick, causing two of his teeth to be knocked out. The specifics are murky, but it doesn’t really matter who or why. At the end of the day, it was probably just two 11-year-old boys being 11-year-old boys.

The two couples politely discuss the matter about their children. They chitchat. They eat some cobbler and drink some espresso. But soon communications break down, tempers flair, harsh words are traded and people’s true colors begin to show. But this isn’t a film about plot; it’s a film about words. Except for a brief prologue and epilogue in the park where the two boys fought, the entire movie takes place in the Longstreet’s apartment and basically involves an 80-minute argument.

At times I wanted to cover my ears for some peace and quiet. Other times I almost felt guilty about listening to (and sometimes laughing at) these couples’ dirty laundry. But mostly I was engaged in their squabbling, during the course of which they discuss marriage, child rearing, gender roles, liberal guilt, empathy and our “real” persona that we keep hidden. By the end, the “mature adults" are angry, bitter and uncivilized while the two fighting children probably are able to sit together in the cafeteria without causing a problem.

The dialogue crackles with wit and humor, but also biting, vitriolic truths. The ideas are often thought provoking, but the style in which they are presented is artfully done. The dialogue has a tremendous rhythm and linguistic specificity, the kind of which is almost exclusively seen in works by master playwrights. No line of line of dialogue or word choice is there just ‘cause.

Real People

It’s easy to sit in judgment and say these couples are caricatures, but are they? Sure, I laughed and groaned when Alan’s cell phone rang for the hundredth time and he answered. At first his rudeness seemed ridiculous. But then I remembered a friend’s father who once got a work fax delivered to him while he was sitting poolside in a luxury resort and another time when a man sitting behind me at the movies ordered a pizza during a film (“I’d like two large pies. Can you do one with pepperoni and one, let’s see, how about how cheese and half buffalo chicken?”).

These are the type of people we all don’t want to admit we know, but we do. We might even be them. Don’t let the quaffed hair or nice Brooks Brothers clothes fool you, there’s a savage just waiting to come out. It’s a smart move too that the writer or director never feel like they’re judging the characters or even poking fun at them. Who is right, who is wrong and who is absolutely crazy is just up to us.

Much of that believability comes from its cast, who all seem to be having a blast. This is a dream project as an actor and all four cast members dig into their roles with meaty abandon and there’s a certain glee in just letting these master actors go to town. For a movie based on words and ideas, captivating performances are key and the work by Foster, Reilly, Winslet and Waltz is nothing short of perfection. It’s like watching a master class.

The direction by Roman Polanski is masterful too. Notice how he builds tension while working in a small, contained set? Or orchestrates each actor’s performance to come together into a symphony of dialogue? His technique is pretty flawless and I was also pleasantly surprised by his little directorial flourishes, my favorite of which being the barking dogs that are ever present in the hallway. Is this meant to suggest that every apartment has its secrets or that the dogs’ incessant barking is no different than the couples’ arguments?

I enjoyed Polanski’s direction and the casts’ performances. But I must admit I was mostly entertained in the same way I liked discussing dramaturgy in my college class. There’s a lot to think about here and those ideas were presented extremely well. But it felt more like an exercise than a full movie, a scene study of the highest level. It's limited scope (both physically and thematically) sometimes leaves the film just lacking a certain something. I would bet that isn't true on the stage and that the play’s urgency and wit would stick more with a live audience. But in a dark movie theater, staring at a 2D screen, it’s hard not to feel restless. Intellectual interest isn’t always your friend at the movies.

For those who hold season tickets to The Yale Rep or Long Wharf and enjoy ruminating on their shows, I’d give “Carnage” a shot. For those who get bored easily or find the idea of a 80-minute one-act play torturous, well then, I’d go see something else. 

What I'd See This Week

  • For some adventure – “” / “Tintin”
  • For some just about everyone — ""
  • For the family — "Beauty & The Beast 3D"

For showtimes of "Carnage" at Middletown's Destinta Theater, see here.

About this column: Reviews on the latest releases to hit the silver screen.

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