Coffee and cobbler will lead to the breakdown of our society. Now you know. In Roman Polanski’s Carnage, two couples — seemingly intelligent, affable adults — become unglued, morphing into self-serving jerks while trying to deal with the aftermath of a schoolyard fight between their two sons.
I couldn’t help but liken this movie to Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. As with Nichols’ film, Carnage is based on a stage play. It also deals with highly educated upper-middle class white couples breaking down over a prolonged visit (doubting if the liberal Longstreets are upper-middle? I’d like to know how else they could afford the lavish apartment/condo they’ve got. Seriously, it’s awe-inspiring.) But unlike Woolf, Carnage is a comedy. And it’s hilarious. No, fans of Louis C.K., I’m not abusing the term. Okay, maybe I’m not dirty and haven’t been in a gutter (lately). But I was close.
As the meeting goes from a quick pop-in to a prolonged, agonizing grudge match, cracks form not only in the polite facade the couples present one to the other, but within each marriage and in each individual. Penelope Longstreet, the mother of the little boy who got beat up, is so liberal she’s a holier-than-thou shrew that spouts condescending psycho-babble, always knowing that she’s the one who’s right. Michael Longstreet is a borderline misogynist that couldn’t care less about his kids or the animal they decided to have as a pet. Nancy Cowan, the mother of the little boy who doled out the beat-down, has a paper-thin shell of fellowship that hides short-tempered bitchiness, and Alan Cowan is more attached to his Blackberry than he ever was to his wife and family. Fractures mend then break, sides are taken, break down and re-form…. Add alcohol and four personal edit buttons that slowly fade out of view as the veneer of civility strips away, stir and serve.
This movie could have been two minutes long. The Longstreets and the Cowans make plans to address their sons’ problems, and they go their separate ways. But that doesn’t happen; they stay and slowly unravel. There are several moments when you can’t help but wonder why the Cowans don’t just leave. Why not? Well, it’s kind of like a horror movie; the characters try to fit pleasant, everyday patterns into an increasingly unusual situation. Moviegoers know what will happen, but the characters don’t. And anyone who thinks they’d catch on much sooner than these folks, well they’re better than 99% of the rest of us. (Though I do like to believe I’d never roam the woods with a half-broken flashlight clad in nothing but a bra and panties. I cling to that small hope.)
Director Roman Polanski knows how to build tension — check out Rosemary’s Baby or Repulsion for prime examples — but here it’s less about supernatural horror and more about how individuals can become horrible, and it’s done to brilliant effect. Polanski also wrote the screenplay with Yasmina Reza, (on whose play “Le Dieu du carnage” this film is based) and it’s filled with light touches that build to a scathing grudge match between all four characters. “Is drinking bad for you?”, Alan asks Penelope, after Michael tells her she shouldn’t drink. “It’s GREAT for me!”, she replies. Funny? Oh yeah, you bet. But not Bridesmaids or Blazing Saddles funny. The humor in Carnage is based on the sneaking suspicion that we’d all fall down in similar circumstances. There’s observational humor here, and even a bit of slapstick (people who aren’t fond of upper GI irregularity may find themselves grossed out early on. Fair warning.) But most of the humor here is understated at the start, with a good bit of situational irony. As the movie goes on, sarcasm and drunken slapstick (yayz!) come to the fore, as does the ever-popular Schadenfreude. Polanski manages to blend all these styles with a deft touch, mixing things up so nothing becomes stale or overdone. Hiring actors that can do heavy lifting doesn’t hurt either. Oscar winners Jodie Foster (as Penelope), Kate Winslet (Nancy) and Christoph Waltz (Alan), along with should-have-won-by-now-dammit Oscar nominee John C. Reilly (Michael) not only give blistering, unrestrained performances, it looks like they’re really having a blast with the material.
A scathing look at our societal norms and how if we call them into question, we break down. It’s mighty fun to watch, but I’m sure glad I was on the other side of that particular fourth wall. It’s funnier over here.