‘Carnage’: A triumph for Polanski, and the funniest movie about hopelessness you’ll ever see

Carnage. (Sony Pictures Classics)
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A privileged existence leads to guilt, and guilt leads to savage behavior.

That is the obvious message in Roman Polanski's Carnage (an adaptation of Yasmina Reza's hit Broadway play God of Carnage), in which two sets of upscale New York parents get together to discuss a brawl between their sons on the schoolyard. Over the course of the next 80 minutes, what should have been a cordial conversation between concerned parents descends into outright anarchy. Ugliness and pettiness is laid bare, and there is no hope for humanity. And, oh yeah, it's hilarious from beginning to end.

For all the twisted slickness of the script, it doesn't have the bite of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a play that is in fact about the mutually assured destruction of four human beings during one fateful, booze-soaked night. Carnage stays on the surface, but that is not necessarily a flaw. It is what Yasmina Reza wrote. A comedy of manners with farcical elements, Carnage manages to be both brutal and exhilarating, sometimes in the same moment. It is a tour de force for the four actors, and a reminder (as if we needed one) of why Polanski, controversies notwithstanding, is one of the greatest directors ever to practice the craft.

The film, like the play, takes place in real time and in one location, and Polanski said part of the appeal of the project was that he had "never made a film without the slightest ellipse." His significant creative energies are released when working in a confined single space (for example, the apartments in Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby), and in Carnage, he shows his unquestioned mastery at creating an event.

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Jodie Foster plays Penelope Longstreet, a passive-aggressive politically correct New Yorker whose polite exterior masks a mass of rage and self-pity. It is her son who was "disfigured" on the playground, and she has engineered this meeting at her own apartment to try to understand what happened. She is a professional do-gooder who has written two books on Africa. She is competitive, yet her liberal background makes her uncomfortable with being perceived as competitive. She is a nervous breakdown waiting to happen.

Penelope is married to Michael (John C. Reilly), who owns a housewares store. Played with ferocity and humorous rage by James Gandolfini in the Broadway production, Reilly is an unlikely choice for the role. He brings a submerged, emasculated energy to Michael, which ends up working, showing how this bear of a man has been dominated by a society that feels his working-class background is something to be ashamed of.

Kate Winslet and Christopher Waltz play Nancy and Alan Cowan, the parents whose son was "armed" with a stick on the playground. Nancy, at first, is eager to show how evolved she is—that she's just as evolved as Penelope, in fact. Alan is a lawyer for a pharmaceutical company deeply embroiled in a lawsuit due to the side-effects of one particular drug which they refuse to remove from the shelves. Alan, dragged along to the Longstreets by his wife, continues to answer his constantly ringing cell phone, no matter when it goes off, and, even worse, has lengthy conversations with his colleagues while Penelope, Michael, and Nancy all sit around waiting for him to finish. He is tremendously rude.

The play was a miracle of unity, with all four characters starting out displaying a brittle overlay of civilization and ending up collectively as potential candidates for Bellevue. The idea seems to be that our baser selves are our true selves, and the rigmarole we all go through to hide our primitive natures is a useless enterprise. You can see why Polanski was drawn to this material. When I saw the Broadway play, which ran without intermission, it was like being trapped in that apartment with those four awful people. The dialogue came fast and furious, bringing roars of laughter in response to almost every line, and the audience rode that roller-coaster screaming all the way. Translating that immediacy to a screenplay was one of Polanski's biggest challenges.

The events unfold exactly as they did in the play. Penelope and Michael play host, and Nancy and Alan try to be gracious, but the rift between them becomes visible almost immediately. Nancy and Alan keep trying to leave, but Alan's ringing cell phone stops them every time. Finally, Michael breaks out a bottle of Scotch, and that's when all hell starts to break loose. Penelope's veneer shatters. Michael announces himself as the politically incorrect bore he has always been. Nancy projectile-vomits her cobbler all over Penelope's art books. And Alan grows more and more impatient at what he sees to be the inanity of the entire encounter.

There are great swings in the action. Suddenly, with one or two comments, the men find themselves on the same side. They start to smoke cigars and gang up on the women. Then the women gang up on the men. Everyone splits off. Polanski shows this in his framing of the four characters. For the first three-quarters of the film, the frame is cluttered with faces. A character is rarely alone onscreen, and if one is, the palatial mirrors on the walls reflect back the other characters in the room. By the end of the film, Polanski switches to huge closeups, indicating that there is no shared experience here, just individuals fighting for the last shred of sanity they each have.

Jodie Foster, not known for her theatricality, becomes almost surreal in her rage here, and I found her hysterically funny in her self-pity, a quality I do not associate with Foster. There is a moment when Alan, sensing Penelope's weak spot, makes fun of Africa, and she, already ratcheted up, says to him, veins bulging out of her forehead, "Don't you talk to me about Africa." It was absurd and outrageous.

John C. Reilly, miscast, survives quite well, making Michael his own. When Nancy eventually goes off the rails, drunk on Scotch, he stares up at her with boozy appreciation and surprise, saying to himself, "Wow!"

Winslet's meltdown, featured in part in the trailer, is as out-of-control as promised, bursting her out of the seams of her sensible blue suit. She's glorious when she lets her freak flag fly, because it is in such stark contrast to her nervous unhappiness in the early parts of the film. Christopher Waltz eats up the screen (as well as two plates of cobbler) in his role as the despicable and selfish Alan, who, alone among the four, does not seem surprised that things disintegrate so quickly. That's how he sees the world.

Polanski may seem like an odd choice for such rollicking material, but his films have always been funnier than they get credit for. Catherine Deneuve has a chilling moment in Repulsion when she spots her sister's boyfriend's toothbrush on the sink in the bathroom and with a terrifying look of disgust on her face she knocks it into the wastebasket. It's a scary moment, but acutely funny as well.

His films are rich on all levels, and on deeper examination Carnage is a perfect fit for Polanski's detached and somewhat contemptuous position as an outsider. Only briefly was he ever part of a "community." He survived the Holocaust as a child. He was a glorified refugee in swinging London. His films in Hollywood garnered him praise, awards, acclaim, and for a while he was a member of an elite group, but that acceptance was short-lived, and soon, with his controversies racking up, he fled, on the outside once again.

His cold clear eye sees the absurdity and humor in normal life, because he remains somewhat above it, and his response to terror is often a shrug, which is why he is able to portray it so effectively.

In Carnage, each character starts out with an assigned, accepted role in the larger community, in marriage, in parenting, in careers. By the end, all communities are ripped away, and each individual is left unprotected against the cold blast of hopelessness. Community was all an illusion in the first place.

That fact that we can find this all so funny is a testament to Reza's script and to Polanski's firm, sure hand.