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Polanski's Carnage: Reviews, Oscar Prospects

by Anne Thompson
October 1, 2011 1:03 AM
5 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

Roman Polanski's Carnage played well in Venice and opened the New York Film Festival Friday night. Adapted by Polanski from Yasmina Reza's Tony-winning comedy God of Carnage, which was a hit in Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles, the movie will be catnip for Sony Pictures Classics' target art house adult demo when it opens December 16. Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly are all stellar as two well-heeled New York couples who start out politely trying to negotiate an apology from one pugnacious son for knocking out the other's front teeth with a stick. Things deteriorate from there.

Waltz glowers as a cell-phone wielding master-of-the-universe lawyer, while Kate Winslet is spot-on as his uptight investment banker wife, who not only memorably loses her cookies but her temper over the course of an afternoon. John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster play the nominally more evolved parents of the bashed kid, but all is not as it seems and 18-year-old Scotch effectively loosens tongues and emotions. The movie is wickedly funny and Polanski clearly had a blast shooting it on a Paris set dressed to look like Brooklyn.

But is it Oscar fodder?

Polanski has earned five nominations over the years (Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, Tess) and even while in exile in Paris, he won the best director Oscar in 2003 for The Pianist, which also won best actor for Adrien Brody. But that was a grim holocaust drama; Carnage is much lighter on its feet. Good as they all are, it's hard to imagine which of these actors will grab an Oscar toehold. Three are Oscar winners and Reilly is a one-time nominee (Chicago), but it's hard to argue that any outstrips their previously lauded work.

While the movie won't maintain its 100% Tomatometer score after more critics weigh in (Metacritic is at 77), the fact that many reviewers (see sampling below) negatively compare Carnage to Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won't lend it awards gravitas. Reviewers agree that the film is well worth watching, with powerhouse comedic performances, but falls short of greater ambitions or larger implications. Exactly.

Richard Corliss, Time

But trap four people in a tight space, let minor animosities fester, add too much liquor and watch the venom fly. Spousal comity disappears, parental protectiveness turns to hatred of children, long-suppressed resentments flare up between and within the couples, and a cell phone and a purse will become guided missiles of revenge. Carnage is a marital-arts action film with words as the weapons of domestic destruction...Polanski, across a peripatetic career that now spans a half-century, has always been fascinated by the drama of people imprisoned in an apartment: Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, Polanski himself in The Tenant. His sardonic world view, impressed on him as an orphan boy dodging the Nazis, sees through the veneer of good manners to the animal inside. Working here in miniature, he finds the collapse of civilization in Foster's forced smile, ready to crack like dime-store pottery, and the first burst of revolution in the Alien-like moment when Nancy, sick with nerves and perhaps on her hosts' apple cobbler, violently vomits onto Penelope's treasured old book of Kokoschka paintings.

Josh Ralske, Press Play

“Comic dread” is not a phrase I’ve used often, and while there’s usually a darkly humorous element to Polanski’s work, the handful of his films that could be considered “comedies” are among his least successful. In fact, Carnage, with its almost farcical reversals and building chaos, is probably the only great comedy he’s ever made…While these two couples are trapped, almost like Buñuel’s famous dinner party guests, the audience never feels that way. Any film that makes me laugh as much as this film did, that’s this smart and precise and vibrantly acted, and that sends me from the theater with something to talk about, well, that film gets a strong recommendation, however short it may fall of its aspirations to profundity and greatness.

Leah Rozen, The Wrap

Soon, relations between the couples and, eventually, spouses grow tense and nasty. Everyone starts to behave badly (puking, drinking too much, throwing objects, etc.) and to verbally eviscerate one another. Grownup life, it would seem, is just a larger, nastier version of the playground.nAll of which is amusing to watch but ends up meaning very little. “Carnage’s” laughs come from the vicarious thrill of watching people voice what most of us have, at some time, wanted to say but were too polite or cowed to do so. Essentially, this is a lightweight version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” lacking the true bite and emotional undertow of Edward Albee’s classic drama.

Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine

Wry to its succulently written bone, Carnage, an adaptation of Yasmina Reza's Tony-winning God of Carnage, begins on the war zone of a playground, where a dispute between two boys leaves one with two missing teeth and a nerve in his mouth partially exposed. From there, Polanski moves us to another war zone: a warmly posh Brooklyn apartment where the parents of both boys wear at each other's "sense of community." Just as the implications of what happened on the playground have been parsed to the satisfaction of all parties and a door has been opened, or an elevator button has been pushed, someone insists on a provocative last word and the dispute resumes. The ego sets no one free.

Xan Brookes, The Guardian

Director Roman Polanski has rustled up a pitch-black farce of the charmless bourgeoisie that is indulgent, actorly and so unbearably tense I found myself gulping for air and praying for release. Hang on to your armrest and break out the scotch. These people are about to go off like Roman candles… the film barely puts a foot wrong. The acting comes at full throttle while the pacing cranks up the tension in agonising, incremental degrees. At one point this is all too much for Nancy, who proceeds to vomit copiously over the coffee table, coating Penelope's cherished Oskar Kokoschka book. It is an astonishing scene, an icebreaker like no other. And at the Venice screening, the viewers greeted it with a wild abandon, howling with delight and applauding like thunder, perhaps relieved that someone had cracked before they did themselves.

Lou Lumenick, New York Post

It’s safe to say that Roman Polanski does not harbor warm feelings toward the US, whose officials have long refused to accept his “genius’’ as an excuse to pardon Polanski after he fled sentencing following a guilty plea to having sex with a minor. So it’s somewhat surprising that, handed an opportunity to skewer bourgeois American mores with “Carnage,’’ his first film set here since he began his long life as a fugitive from justice, Polanski pretty much avoids going for the jugular. It’s often a hoot, but the pressure cooker that is “Carnage’’ never boils over and scalds like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’ which remains the gold standard for a four-person dramatic movie.

5 Comments

  • Bryan | October 3, 2011 2:07 AMReply

    It's so frustrating to read critics (not you, Anne, but others) lament that the film is not as good as the play, and that everyone who loves the play will simply despise the remake. These critics seem to perennially forget that 99% of America has never seen the play, and that a solid 90% of it's eventual audience will go into the theater without knowing it was ever even a play!

    So many critics seem to be saying, "Skip this film-- it won't measure up to the wonderful experience you undoubtedly had while seeing it on Broadway!" I repeat: that analysis is completely unhelpful to the majority of filmgoers.

  • Anne Thompson | October 1, 2011 4:22 AMReply

    Polanski's a geezer who has won nominations over the decades like Allen--he's still kickin'-- but hardly as many or as consistently, so I agree that the comparison overstates the case. I amended.

  • Daveylo | October 1, 2011 3:31 AMReply

    It's stupid of the critics to compare Carnage to Who's Afraid of Viriginia Woolf. This two plays have nothing to with each other. This is supposed to a comedy, not some Edward Albee tribute. The woman who wrote the play has never indicated she was writing something metaphoric about marriage and kids.

  • Guy Lodge | October 1, 2011 3:14 AMReply

    Polanski's hardly an "Oscar perennial" on the level of Woody Allen -- bar a solitary costume nod for "Pirates," "The Pianist" is his only Oscar nominee since "Tess", over 30 years ago.

  • Mark | October 1, 2011 2:32 AMReply

    Could it be that Polanski made this movie solely for the purpose of making a wicked comedy and not to, as one critic above wrote, "aspire to profundity and greatness"? In fact, could it be that the critics, because of the pedigree of the cast and filmmaker, are the ones who are expecting "profundity and greatness"? I also think the "Virginia Woolf" comparisons, while understandable, are a little lazy. Truthfully, you have a lot more drama and tension in "Woolf" that would merit the "boiling over and scalding" mentioned above. In reading the play, I found this story to be nasty, well-written fun and I am heartily looking forward to Polanski's cinematic intepretation.

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