Based on the play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, Carnage is certainly a lesser item in the oeuvre of director Roman Polanski, but it’s short (under 80 minutes), sweet, and unexpectedly funny, even if it isn’t as biting as it ought to be. While it doesn’t seem to hold up as well in retrospect, it’s blissfully entertaining as it unfolds.
For a film set entirely in an upper-middle-class Brooklyn apartment, that’s no small feat. Carnage opens (and closes) with a long shot of some schoolboys in a park; during the opening credits, we see a skirmish as one boy strikes another with a stick.
But Carnage isn’t about the boys: it’s about their parents, who meet in the Brooklyn apartment of Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster). The Longstreet’s son, Ethan, was struck by Zachary Cowan, son of Alan (Christophe Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet); Ethan lost two teeth and suffered some nerve damage. The two couples amicably discuss the matter, arrange for another meeting between the boys, and the Cowans are out the door.
But – in a nod, perhaps, to Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel – they can’t seem to leave the apartment. There’s disagreement about the usage of words; “’armed’ with a stick”, “disfigured”. Neither couple can let the other have the last word. Both have agreed to peacefully settle the matter, but neither can actually carry through with it.
Michael is a kitchenware wholesaler with an ill mother. Penelope is writing a book about Darfur. Alan is a pharmaceutical lawyer glued to his mobile phone. We don’t find out too much about Nancy. The Cowans seem to be slightly better off than the Longstreets; it’s a battle of the upper-middle-class versus the slightly-more-upper-middle-class.
The gamut of emotions is run throughout the encounter; arguments are heated, not just between the couples, but between themselves. The men take sides. The women take sides. They all agree that Michael did a rotten thing releasing his daughter’s hamster into the wild the previous day. But the hamster seems to be better off than the four of them in the room at the moment.
Polanski is no stranger to this kind of material: 1992’s Death and the Maiden was also based on a stage play, with a single setting and three principal characters. But that film was one of the best of Polanski’s post-70s career; Carnage, for all its intentions, will have to settle for being merely good.
I’m not exactly sure what makes Carnage merely good. The actors are excellent. The direction is fluid. It’s all completely engaging. The material has gone from Reza’s French original to a Christopher Hampton translation to Broadway, where it starred Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden and won a 2009 Tony for Best Play.
The film version just feels a bit insufficient. Nothing wrong with that; maybe it simply plays out better on the stage.