We all have secrets we're sitting on, information about our loved ones that we hold close. To bring them into the open would cause catastrophe, and sometimes we're better off sucking it up and living our lives. These are the things that eat away at us, and when they come out, it's usually in ugly and hurtful ways. No one can hurt someone more than the people they love, and that's what's at the heart of Roman Polanski's new film, Carnage.
Opening Friday, Jan. 13, at Hillcrest Cinemas, Krikorian Metroplex in Vista and Edwards San Marcos, Carnage is set in a Brooklyn apartment that's owned by the Longstreets, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly). He sells hardware supplies, while she fancies herself a bohemian. She has all kinds of serious art books on her coffee table, after all, and she's writing a book on the horrors of Darfur. They're an odd couple, because he's fairly blue-collar while she's more of a progressive lefty. On this particular day, the Longstreets have received a visit from the Cowans, Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz). It's not a pleasant call. The two couples' sons are the same age. A playground fight has left one of them injured, and the parents are getting together to sort out what should be done and who should do it.
That makes for an awkward beginning, but each couple gamely tries to put on a good show, attempting to be civilized even if they want to criticize the other's parenting style, even if they feel defensive after being criticized, even if they think the entire circus is unnecessary. All this eventually devolves into the film's title, as pleasantries are dispensed with, scotch is poured and everyone turns on everyone else. Long-festering husband-and-wife issues are vomited up, sometimes literally, and at times the men bond and the women side with one another so as not to be outnumbered. It's a microcosm of the breakdown of society, a look at what happens to us when our values are challenged or mocked and how we lash out in order to continue telling ourselves that everything's going to be OK and that our opinions are right.
That's hefty stuff. And to handle all that emotional weight is a crew of artists brimming with talent. John C. Reilly? Oscar nomination. Christoph Waltz? Oscar. Kate Winslet? Six nominations and one Oscar. And Jodie Foster? Four nominations and two Oscars. Despite the skeezy drama and tragedy of his past, director Roman Polanski has four Oscar nominations and that Best Director statue he won for The Pianist. The point is, it's a talented group.
Still, it's all set in a one apartment, and much of the dialogue sounds stylized. You may be thinking that it sounds more like a play than a film, and you'd be entirely correct. See, Carnage is the adaptation of Gods of Carnage, the Tony Award-winning play by Yasmina Reza, who adapted her own work with Polanski's assistance. Yes, this makes for a great play—single set, small cast and intense emotional conflict. But despite the terrific cast and the man behind the camera, it doesn't really make for a great film.
That said, there are some very good pieces to this puzzle, my favorite of which is Waltz, who gives his best performance since Inglourious Basterds. None of the others are slouches, either, but you can't help but wonder throughout Carnage why Nancy and Alan don't just leave and spare themselves the abuse. As an audience member, there were times when I wanted to do just that.
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