Sunday, November 27, 2011

Review: "Carnage"

It is a shame when a successful Broadway play is recast for a Hollywood remake. The actors involved in the stage production are rarely considered for the role in the film. The classic example is Audrey Hepburn being cast as Eliza Doolittle in the 1964 film adaptation of My Fair Lady, a role that Julie Andrews had played in the 1956 Broadway production. Andrews had won a Tony Award nomination, but Hepburn did not even garner an Oscar nomination (though Andrews did win that year for her role in Mary Poppins). In 2011 we encounter a similar problem. Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage first premiered in Zurich in 2006 and in London in 2008 before premiering on Broadway in 2009. The play, which starred Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden, won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Play (the play also won an Olivier Award for its London production). In 2010 it was revealed that Roman Polanski would be filming an adaptation and renaming it Carnage. Polanski's adaptation retained the Brooklyn setting even though the acclaimed (and embattled) director is legally unable to return to the United States. Polanski is joined by a quartet of Oscar-nominated (four wins combined) actors: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz. Carnage was one of my most eagerly anticipated films of the fall. Any film with such a talented cast is worth seeing. It is a difficult play to film because the entire story takes place within one New York City apartment. For that reason, the film is similar to Mike Nichol's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Both films four actors (two couples) whose relationships begin to crumble when forced to spend an evening together. Carnage retains the stage-like blocking and for the first half of the film the pacing and camerawork are slightly awkward. There is a shift halfway through the film when everything falls into the place. The actors have loosened up and the emotions are darker. Despite its subject matter, the film is very funny. Carnage is a skillful adaptation of Yasmina Reza's award-winning stage play and though all four actors are wonderfully cast, I believe the story would be more exciting and entertaining on stage rather than on screen.

Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) are spending the afternoon with Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster). The Longstreets have invited the Cowans to their Brooklyn apartment as a courtesy. Their children were involved in a violent altercation in the park. Alan and Nancy's son hit Michael and Penelope's son in the face with a baseball bat, causing him to break two teeth. The two couples are trying to come to some sort of agreement. Nancy is willing to bring her son back that evening to apologize, but is unwilling to concede that her son is solely at fault. Alan, a corporate lawyer, is driving Nancy, an investment broker, crazy because he is constantly on his mobile phone. The entire evening takes a turn when Nancy vomits all over the coffee table. Soon the couples are no longer arguing about the incident between their sons, but the hamster belonging to his daughter that he let free outside the building. Eventually they begin bickering about the state of their marriages. Michael is bother by Penelope's need to always be politically correct. Eventually, Michael brings out the scotch and the night becomes even more chaotic.

Some reviews of Carnage complain that the film starts well and then at the halfway point the promise of the film disappears. As I said above, I feel the exact opposite. The characters exploring each with a hint of skepticism is a joy to watch early on, but Polanski and his camera settle into a better rhythm at the end of the film. Todd McCarthy, film critic for The Hollywood Reporter, discusses the new insights the four actors bring to the film. It is a pleasure to watch Jodie Foster in a role where she slowly falls apart and becomes hysterical. I am thrilled to see Christoph Waltz give a great performance after winning the Oscar for Inglourious Basterds (considering I had no intention of seeing Water for Elephants). Yasmina Reza's play was originally written in French, and I would be interested to see the story in its original language. Imagine seeing Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche (costars in The English Patient) scream at each other in French! Carnage is staged as a play and I believe that the emotions would be heightened on stage rather than on screen. I am impressed with all four actors, and Roman Polanski certainly made the film comical. I would like to see what would have happened had Polanski given the actors more freedom to move around the set. Carnage is a good film and it is great fun to watch these four talented actors fall apart on screen, but there is still something lacking in the adaptation.

My rating: 3.25 stars out of 4.

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