Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review: "Carnage" (2011)

The final shot of Roman Polanski's Carnage, an adaptation of Yasmina Reza's acclaimed play "God of Carnage," doesn't feature anything wrong in and of itself. The composition, framing, lighting, etc... are all perfectly fine, crisply and cleanly captured by cinematographer Pawel Edelman. Yet when one takes into account everything that came before it, along with its supposed meaning, this final shot is a head-bangingly obvious piece of symbolism that does nothing but add an abrupt end to a fast-moving but ultimately tepid piece of satire and social commentary.

Opening with a shot of a park (one of only two exteriors in the whole film), we witness one boy (Zachary) strike another boy (Ethan) with a large stick. Next thing we know, we're in a Manhattan apartment with the parents of the aggressor (Kate Winslet's Nancy and Christoph Waltz's Alan) and the victim (Jodie Foster's Penelope and John C. Reilly's Michael). What starts as a simple conversation among the four of them to come to terms with the bit of violence between their children quickly devolves into a savage verbal battle.

Yet the problem, which registers fairly early on, is simply that Reza's target - middle class hypocrisy and self-righteousness - feels easy, and as a writer she hasn't said anything truly entertaining, interesting, or insightful. Add to the mix that characters switch sides so frequently that no one feels like they have any structure to them. Though the characters have some distinct traits, they ultimately all feel like limply-constructed mouthpieces for the author. There's no depth to any of the four characters, and it only becomes more apparent the more the script drags out the encounter between the two couples. There are any number of opportunities for Nancy and Alan to leave Penelope and Michael's apartment, but through contrivance after contrivance, they keep going back in the door for more punishment (for themselves, the other couple, and the audience).

It's a shame too, because Polanski's cast is trying their hardest. A pity, then, that they're saddled with such lackluster material. Occasionally their talents overcome the script's deficiencies - Winslet's drunken anger is fun to watch, along with Foster's holier-than-thou attitude and Waltz's general disinterest - but even the film's best lines barely register. Polanski's direction is straightforward and efficient, never getting in the way of his talented cast. Unfortunately, there's not much he, or anyone else can do to overcome the weaknesses of the source material, and therefore the screenplay. Thankfully the actors have plenty of energy, so the film never drags. At the same time, the only reason the pace is a strength is that it makes the film feel like a swift piece of mediocre film making rather than a tortuously drawn-out affair. It's all so surface-oriented, so forced, and so artificial, that even the third act theatrics fail to bring a much-needed spark to the scenes. Throughout the entire ordeal, Waltz's Alan displays a constant attitude of disinterest, remarking at one point that the whole conversation is pointless. As it turns out, he's right, and the result is that the film as a whole feels pointless as well.

Grade: C

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