Roman Polanski has a way with apartments. His 1976 film The Tenant is about an unassuming introvert who moves into a flat after the previous occupant committed suicide. Over the course of the movie, the new tenant (played by Polanski) becomes convinced his landlord and neighbors are pushing him to a similar fate, and the apartment itself becomes a source of paranoia and unease. There’s cross-dressing and a ledge and a twist at the end, but the vibe from that apartment is unmistakable. Home, in this case, is anything but sweet.
Polanski’s latest film features another dubious dwelling that deserves to be deserted at all costs. With the exception of the opening and closing credits, the entirety of Carnage takes place inside a pricey Manhattan condo. It doesn’t take long to realize that nothing good is going to happen here and that, as in The Tenant, things will end badly. The only difference is, The Tenant uses this creeping claustrophobia for horror, while Carnage takes it toward humor.
In the real world, Carnage would last about seven minutes and end with hollow promises and polite goodbyes. The owners of the Manhattan condo, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), are the parents of an 11-year-old boy who was struck with a stick during a standard schoolyard dispute. The parents of the stick-wielder, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet), come over to apologize. The film opens with the four of them drafting a letter that agrees on who did what and states that Alan and Nancy take responsibility for their son’s actions. Everyone seems satisfied by the outcome, and Alan and Nancy get to the doorway, but a halfhearted offer of fresh cobbler draws them back in. Of course it does.
A magical magnetic force works throughout the movie to keep the two couples confined to the condo. It’s one of two improbable plot devices used to set up a broader discussion of parenting and manners, but no matter the method. The result is a brisk 79-minute display of vicious dialogue and sharp acting.
Foster plays an activist and author wound a little too tight. She’s currently working on a book about Darfur, and her coffee table holds stacks of rare art books. Reilly plays her husband, an easygoing salesman specializing in bathroom parts. Whereas Foster persistently amps up the conversation, unintentionally needling her guests with judgmental jabs, Reilly only wants to please. He’s the one who insists on serving the cobbler.
Waltz, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of a Nazi in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, steals scenes as the preoccupied lawyer always talking on his cell phone. He’s been dragged to this meeting by his wife, and does a horrendous job feigning interest in the outcome. His son is a monster, beyond help, a “threat to Homeland Security.” It’s only when Foster challenges his parental apathy that Waltz decides to engage in a little verbal jousting. His raised eyebrows and sarcastic smile cut deeper than words.
Winslet has the least to work with, but still offers up the most memorable scene. She’s a vain investment broker, embarrassed by her husband and defeated by her son’s actions. She wants to make things right. Despite her best efforts, she ends up making the biggest mess by losing her cobbler all over the coffee table and its precious contents. It’s the best public puke since George H.W. Bush lost his cookies with the Prime Minister of Japan in 1992.
All four actors have a blast with the material. As the conversation devolves from awkward pleasantries to outright hysterics, each one brings a little something extra to the table (pun not intended with Winslet). Foster and Winslet received Golden Globe nominations for their performances; Waltz and Reilly would have been just as deserving.
Polanski and Yasmina Reza adapted Carnage for the big screen from Reza’s Tony-winning play God of Carnage. While the acting in the film is superb, the larger platform reveals a few flaws in the script. There’s the whole thing about nobody leaving the condo, an especially bizarre choice after Winslet boots early on. The two couples also get sloppy drunk in record time, a convenient circumstance to help bring about a frenzied ending. The worst offense is less obvious. Reza’s play debuted in December 2006 and was praised for its biting commentary. Just more than five years later, key parts seem stale. Foster’s uber-liberal morals and Waltz’s CrackBerry obsession make for wilted punching bags.
What didn’t fade with time, however, are the whip-fast exchanges and spirited debate. There’s a recurring fight over the use of the word “deliberately” and the treatment of a hamster. Neither has anything to do with larger society, but both make for incredible banter in the hands of talented actors. Even as this bickering continues, improbable as parts may be, it leaves the audience content to eavesdrop. The characters may want to escape the condo, but you’re just fine as a fly on the wall.
Carnage continues at the Wilma.