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Roman Polanski’s ‘Carnage’: Lost in Translation?

December 20, 2011

Cowriter-director Roman Polanski hasn’t just chopped the title of God of Carnage (to Carnage) in adapting Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning social satire for the big screen. He’s also chopped the play from a lean and mean 90 minutes sans intermission to a positively anorexic 79 minutes. So why does it feel endless?

Part of the problem is that Polanski stubbornly refuses to bow to conventional wisdom and “open up” the play. Aside from a wordless prologue in which we witness a playgound assault (which occurred offstage in the theatrical version) and an even briefer epilogue, all the action transpires in a yupscale Brooklyn apartment on a single afternoon as two married couples argue with increasing ferocity over how to settle their sons’ dispute. What was effectively claustrophobic on stage (I saw the Broadway production) becomes unbearable on screen. It doesn’t help that characters keep saying things like “Why are we still in this house?” Viewers could hardly be blamed if they yelled back, “Good question!”

Further flying in the face of commonly held principles, Polanski encourages his actors to give broader, more cartoonish performances than their Broadway counterparts did. Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet—who were both undeservingly nominated for Best Actress in a Comedy at the Golden Globes—take a pair of diametrically opposed characters (an art historian and an investment banker) and create the same uptight, shrill character. Marcia Gay Harden—who won a Tony—and Hope Davis brought subtlety and nuance to the roles, but Polanski’s not interested in that.

Meanwhile, Christoph Waltz brings his dead-tired smiling-sadist shtick (from Inglourious Basterds, The Green Hornet and Water for Elephants) to the part of a socially maladroit pharmaceutical lawyer who’s addicted to his Crackberry. Jeff Daniels earned huge laughs on stage and somehow made this character weirdly likable, but Waltz is simply out of step.

John C. Reilly succeeds in letting loose the beast within a seemingly mild-mannered houseware-supplies salesman, but his everyshlub act is on the verge of overexposure (this year alone, he’s also appeared in Cedar Rapids, Terri and We Need to Talk About Kevin—he’s the male Jessica Chastain!) Plus, when his character admits he’s “thrilled” his son has a gang because he used to be in one, it doesn’t pack the same comic wallop as when Sopranos family man James Gandolfini said the line on stage.

Ultimately, Carnage is a minor entry in the Polanski canon. It’s better than last year’s wildly overrated Ghost Writer, but not in the same league as The Pianist, Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby. Back then, Polanski was a real god of carnage.

Will you be seeing Carnage? And what’s your favorite Polanski film?

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6 Comments
  1. I was excited to see Carnage, despite being exposed to Ghost Writer…but maybe I’ll rethink that. Is it even legal to show a movie that’s shorter than an hour and a half???

    • bruceafretts permalink

      It shouldn’t be. But I was glad this movie didn’t drag on any longer.

  2. chandlerswainreviews permalink

    I am always interested in seeing what Polanski is up to (in his professional capacity, if you please) but I didn’t think this play was a good fit for him in the first place, as I find it a very insubstantial work to begin with no matter how enlivened by an impressive stage cast. That Foster and Winslet come up short is no surprise as they, in my opinion, have been disappointing expectations for years. Waltz, sadly, seems to be a one shot wonder, who connected with his ideal role at just the right moment of international public exposure. And Reilly, I have tired of ever since a botched pre-Broadway-that-never-found-realization production of a musical “Marty”. Is material this scarce across the pond that Polanski must divest his energies on such trivia?

    • bruceafretts permalink

      Well-put! I like the source material better than you do, but the film is a big disappointment. I hope Polanski has at least one good film left in him, but “The Pianist” may have been his last artistic crescendo.

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