Profane madness that earns its R rating while leaving the audience repeatedly in laughter.
Carnage is a malevolently funny film that simply can’t be missed. It is surprising beyond words that a socially condemned director like Roman Polanski can point his camera so poignantly at the enormous, unavoidable pitfalls of family life here in the United States.
Quite frankly, my big worry in seeing Carnage was that it would be one of those films where the only really funny moments were displayed in the previews. Fortunately, I was dead wrong, and what unfolds is a wickedly perverse tale about two married couples in a joint state of emotional collapse.
Only four characters appear on screen, and the actors are astonishingly good. John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster, two actors with little in common, play Michael and Penelope Longstreet, a married couple confronting the parents of a child who whacked their son with a pole on a playground.
Reilly plays to his strength, in this case a haunted salesman trying to dodge his weaknesses. Though most of you are already familiar with his accomplishments, take the time to see his all but forgotten role in Chicago (2002); his hysterical performance in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006); the under-respected Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007); and his gut wrenching contribution to this past year’s very funny Cedar Rapids.
Jodie Foster has never been more perversely funny, although I can’t recall that she has ever tried. Here, she plays a wife haunted by inescapable personality issues who is trying to deal with both her son’s facial injury as well as her husband’s obvious lunacy.
Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet are Alan and Nancy Cowan, the parents of the young boy who injured the other child. One of the great actresses working today, Ms. Winslet is initially polite and outgoing as she tries to calm the Longstreets as well as tolerate her husband’s compulsive use of his cell phone. Mr. Waltz is mesmerizing as an arrogant, elusive husband who never sees an insult that he finds to be remotely inappropriate.
As reflected by the previews, the two couples gradually unravel as they try to deal with the problems of their children. Ms. Foster has a very large emotional pole up her butt that she can’t escape, while Reilly, wanting to be kind, loses all standing when it is revealed that he released his son’s hamster into the street earlier that morning simply to get rid of it.
In a moment that reflects an indescribably delicious disaster, Ms. Winslet fights to keep a balance between her enormously uninterested husband and the gradual disillusionment of her hosts, only to profusely vomit in their living room. It is a scene for the ages.
The screenplay by Yasmina Reza is a complete and total delight. It is impossible to describe how devilishly absurd everything becomes when our four adults drink heavily from Reilly’s 18 year old scotch. In particular, watch for the scene where Reilly gives a monologue about how children are destined to ruin the lives of all adults. There was constant laughter in the theater, and I can only say that you are likely to find your sides splitting.
As profoundly enjoyable as this film is, it is worth remembering that it has been put together by a director that is so hated in this country. Like many people, I have read as much as possible about the criminal case that resulted in Mr. Polanski’s flight to Europe, and I have always had some unapologetic sympathy for him.
Without excusing his conduct, how can anyone forget that his wife, Sharon Tate, was brutally butchered by the Manson clan? I truly believe Mr. Polanski deserved better treatment by the American criminal justice system that basically was rigged to the point where he justifiably could no longer hang around.
While Carnage at its heart deals with the troubled relationship of two adult couples, it also allows us to take an unapologetic view of life. While we clearly have two marriages that are committed to each other, they both barely mask an inherent discomfort. There are obvious reasons to love all four of them, but you also know that they disguise flaws that float barely beneath the surface.
Quite frankly, I have always passionately hated the way cell phones have changed our daily lives, and that fact is on full display in this film. Like it or not, most of us are in a position where we seldom have any meaningful privacy, and Mr. Waltz is brilliant as a superficial prick whose phone is in many ways nothing more than his mistress.
This is a tormented film that is wonderfully demented to its core. While admittedly abusive and hysterical, it is profoundly revealing as a film where Polanski is able to show the underbelly of American life.