“What’s the matter with kids these days?” It’s an old adage that in recent years has been reversed to: “What’s the matter with parents these days?” In other words, sure, kids may misbehave but what are or aren’t the parents doing to bring about this behavior? It’s the examination of that idea that goes under the microscope in co-writer/director Roman Polanski’s “Carnage.”
The story, set it in Brooklyn, NY, drops us in on two sets of parents who’ve decided to meet after their sons are involved in a playground scuffle. John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster play Michael and Penelope, the parents of the victim. They have interests in art, the plight in Darfur and work hard to keep up a polished appearance.
Alan and Nancy, played by Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet, a lawyer and investment banker respectively, are more buttoned down professional types – and surprisingly game to apologize for their child’s aggressive act. While both couples initially work hard at keeping up cordial appearances, Alan’s emerging ambivalence and Penelope’s sly insistence in painting an increasingly more dramatic account of the incident begin a chain of button pushing until true colors come to light.
Watching couples with different parenting styles pitted against each other is an idea ripe for satire, but about halfway through, I found myself already over it. Firstly, the characters aren’t really all that complex. Aside from an ironic moment played over the end credits, there really aren’t any profound discoveries here, just increasing levels in voices and bluntness.
One example: Alan is more married to his cell phone than he is his wife and it drives her crazy. What do you think his wife eventually does with the phone?
As time goes on, rather than becoming more naked and interesting, these characters simply become more shrill. Think of it this way: You’re sitting at a restaurant and you overhear a couple at the next table fighting. At first it’s interesting. You think, “What are they arguing about? Who’s making the better point?” It’s fun to eavesdrop and diagnose. As time passes however, and the increasingly loud arguing shows no signs of letting up, it just becomes grating. “Are they still talking about that? Can we switch seats away from these people?” No. With “Carnage” you cannot.
The film is based on the popular, award winning play “God of Carnage” and retains some of its theatrical DNA by confining itself – for the majority of the movie – to one location and unfolding in real time, a feat Polanski pulls off well.
But while claustrophobia isn’t a problem, some other stage-y elements haven’t translated as well to the silver screen. On stage, a couple trying to leave an apartment, only to continue being lured back (whether it seems likely or not), probably plays better than it does in a film. On stage, where could they go? Of course they’re going to stay. On film, there’s a hallway, elevators, a whole world outside they could escape to, making the several ways they remain restricted to the confines a bit of a stretch.
Performances are also a little heightened but likely just staying true to the material. Again, probably fine on a stage but bordering close to caricature in a medium as literal as film.
Before walking into “Carnage” I’d caught wind of how fantastic it was so I’m fully willing to admit that maybe it just wasn’t for me. There’s plenty of talent here both in front of and behind the camera.
The real time element never draws attention to itself. The humor plays fine and shocking moments appropriately shock. It’s just, I couldn’t help but find myself becoming less and less interested in the proceedings. Even though there are no major realizations beyond the 30 minute mark, for many, watching these people continue to argue in an escalating fashion for fifty more minutes is apparently part of the fun. As for me? I’d be asking the waiter if I could switch seats.
“Carnage” opens in Los Angeles and New York on Dec. 16.