“Carnage,” the latest from Roman Polanski, which opens this year’s New York Film Festival, may be as slight as its running time (a mere 80 minutes), but it is well acted by its four principals, and its rapid-fire, verbally cutting dialog is spiritedly delivered by the cast.
Adapted from Yasmina Reza’s transatlantic hit play “God of Carnage,” scripted by Reza with Polanski, “Carnage” wisely doesn’t attempt to “open up” this theater piece too much, other than some exterior long shots that play out behind the opening and closing credits. The film unfolds in real time, as two married couples – Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) and Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) – attempt to settle a dispute involving their children. The Cowans’ son Zachary (Elvis Polanski) struck the Longstreets’ son Ethan (Eliot Berger) with a stick during a playground fight, knocking out two of Ethan’s teeth and wounding his face. The entire film consists of a single scene in which the parents meet to resolve their children’s dispute, working out the terms of possible compensation for medical expenses and to perhaps elicit an apology from Zachary.
The parents meet at the Longstreets’ Brooklyn apartment, where the Longstreets are exceedingly polite to the other couple, especially Michael, who eagerly offers coffee and peach cobbler. Penelope is somewhat less so, dropping not-so-subtle comments about her son’s “disfigurement.” The interpretation of words is a main theme of the play and the film, and much of the conflict between the two couples arises over how they derive hidden insinuations and assaults on their character based on these words. Their first disagreement occurs in the opening minutes, concerning whether it is accurate to say that Zachary was “armed” with the stick. As their initially civil conversation descends into a free-for-all of insults, shouting, and at one point, projectile vomiting, a class-based dynamic becomes apparent between the two couples. The Longstreets are, at least on the surface level, consciously working-class liberals: Penelope is an activist crusader working on a book about Darfur, while Michael is a housewares wholesaler. The Cowans, on the other hand, are the prototypical white-collar power couple: Alan is an attorney, and Nancy is an investment broker. The most potent running gag concerns Alan, who brings his office with him wherever he goes, chained to his Blackberry, constantly exiting the conversation to take calls from his office. Another funny reoccurring element is the Cowans’ trying to leave the apartment, but continually lured back, “Exterminating Angel” style, to score more points in their argument. Eventually, in the course of their meeting, all their rather monstrous true natures are revealed, the “carnage” of the title.
As funny as all this often is, it’s all pretty much a trifle, with some very facile and obvious points made about hypocrisy, especially of the liberal kind. The play invites the smug feeling of superiority on the part of the theatergoer and the film viewer to these rather silly characters, who turn out to be not characters at all, but instead outlandish caricatures. Reza’s material is ultimately thin and schematic, a sketch rather than a fully realized work, so its success as entertainment rises and falls on the strength of its actors, and here Polanski has done well. This is the sort of material that actors love, since it gives them funny lines to say and energetic things to do. Christoph Waltz is especially impressive, investing his line readings with a delicious superciliousness which elicits some of the film’s biggest laughs. The contributions of veteran production designer Dean Tavoularis (“The Godfather,” “Apocalypse Now”) are also noteworthy, as well as the fluid camerawork of cinematographer Pawel Edelman; this small apartment space is rendered quite dynamic and varied in their hands. The flat digital-video images, however, do this production no favors.
“Carnage” will have four screenings on September 30 at Alice Tully Hall and the Walter Reade Theater; currently, only standby seats are available. The film opens December 16 in New York and Los Angeles. For NYFF ticket information, visit the festival’s website.