Being a parent changes you. I say this with all the knowledge and foresight of someone who’s never fathered children. I watched childless friends at parties expound about all the things they’d never let their children do — no refined sugar, and no television, and all the books their children were going to read and how they’d NEVER let their kids listen to that commercialized children’s entertainment bullshit. And as I grew older, I used to watch the friends who already had children kind of raise their glasses to their mouths to stifle the patronizing giggles. With all the well-meaning and parenting book information in the world, you could still raise an insufferable little shit. You don’t know what kind of parent you are going to be until you are one.
Carnage is a comedy of manners — a Sartresque mediation between two couples that quickly devolves into mayhem and chaos. Their two 10-year-old children have been involved in “an incident,” one of those gloriously loaded euphemisms that lawsuits are born upon, in which one boy struck the other in the face with a stick in a public park, cracking two of his teeth. It’s a pressure cooker of niceties, where everyone’s just trying to be polite to get through this as swiftly and courteously as possible, that eventually explodes. Each one of the four main characters eventually lets the mask drop and their personal opinions and ugliness come out and then things start to get fun. Or, kind of fun. Roman Polanski and playwright Yasmina Reza adapted the script from Reza’s original play The God of Carnage. And it feels like a filmed play. The dialogue is very formalized and the performances lack the fervor and spontaneity of a stage production. There’s a less potent chemistry between the venerable cast they’ve assembled and so the ensuing explosion isn’t as massive. It’s like watching a fireworks display in a small town that doesn’t have as much in the budget as its neighbors. Fireworks are always entertaining, but you kinda hoped it be bigger.
On one side, we’ve got the Longstreets, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), whose son Ethan was struck in the face. Michael is a closet conservative who sells housing supplies. Penelope is a “fat free organic” parent: a bookseller who collects art books and who is writing about African atrocities. On the other hand, we’ve got the Cowans, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet), whose son Zachary was the batterer. Alan is an attorney representing a pharmaceutical company. Nancy is a commodities trader or investment broker or something. This is the delightful recipe that unvarnished Thanksgiving arguments revel in. But these folks don’t know each other, they’ve only got to interact to get through the “incident” with everyone walking away satisfied.
Everything starts politely, everyone sharing coffee and cobbler, getting through the conversation in agreement. Jibing and prodding immediately sets in, calling into question how these children are being raised. It’s semantics jujitsu, walloping each other with restrained disagreements. Mixed into this are the greater overarching problems. Alan is constantly springing up to answer his phone as his client’s in the middle of a major lawsuit, much to Nancy’s chagrin. Michael’s got a sick mother who keeps phoning him to complain and get medical advice. You can see minor annoyances and aggravations quickly turn into major arguments.
It’s one of the circumstances that develop when two people try to tell each other how to live their lives. Penelope demands that Zachary should come over to apologize, but only if he means it, and that the Cowan’s need to instill in their child the understanding that what he did was wrong. But beyond parenting practices, the play then develops into uglier and broader topics such as racism, misogyny, homophobia, the happiness of the couples, work ethics, politics, and so on. It’s hilarious and nasty and awkward, but feels empty. By the end of the play, characters have thrown up on art catalogs, destroyed cell phones, and are drunk on fine scotch. It seethes with flamboyant absurdism, with all the adults acting as petty as children without anything being resolved, but Polanski never lets the performers get purely out of control.
The four actors were clearly chosen for their pedigrees — the trailer loves showing ACADEMY AWARD WINNER/NOMINEE above each of their names. And they do a fine job, but you kind of wish they had brought in the original Broadway cast of James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels. All four of them were nominated for Tonys for their roles, and Harden won. So they’ve got the chops. But Polanski doesn’t bring anything anything fresh to the production, and so everything feels flat. He does a fine job with the confining Brooklyn apartment, but beyond that the only thing he adds is two bookend scenes where we see the boys get into the initial assault and then at the end we see them playing together in the park. This isn’t a spoiler, the entire point of the production is that none of this matters, none of their bickering and bitching and spiteful opinions means a goddamn thing. And that kids are way more resilient than adults.
Carnage feels like a giant disappointment, an unenthusiastic way to make a dime off the success of a stage production, similarly to what they’ve done with Proof, Spinning Into Butter and the one that came closest to pulling it off, Bug. The film community needs to appreciate that playwriting in different than screenwriting. The scripts aren’t interchangeable. What works on a stage in front of a live audience doesn’t translate automatically to the screen. Martin McDonagh understands this. It’s called an adaptation for a reason — it’s supposed to evolve to become something new and better but still recognizable to the source.