By Mark Peikert
A funny thing happened to God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza’s hit 2009 Broadway comedy, on the road to its streamlined film incarnation as Carnage: Our loyalties to the pair of middle- and upper-middle-class couples have shifted.
A stylish (if hollow) comedy about the bad manners of the conscientiously well-bred, Reza’s 90-minute play sailed along on a wave of sheer acting from Marcia Gay Harden (who won a Tony for her performance as the uptight, bleeding heart Penelope), Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels and James Gandolfini. A few critics pointed out the implausibilities of Reza’s story about two Brooklyn couples who come together to discuss their sons’ fight, but the foursome on stage were having such an infectious good time that it didn’t matter.
That immediacy of being a fly on the wall of the apartment in which Penelope and her husband Michael live isn’t recreated in Roman Polanski’s film adaptation—though the director tries like hell to convey it with tight middle shots and a plentitude of close-ups. We’re still watching the afternoon spiral out of control—still somewhat implausibly spurred on by alcohol—as semantics are debated, child-rearing skills are questioned and everything eventually devolves into the men versus the women—but it somehow feels more theatrical than the stage version, even as co-screenwriter Polanski streamlines the script.
The casting is also questionable. Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz, as the visiting couple, are an unlikely pair who play off of each other perfectly; her softness and his shark grin convey an eroticism in their relationship that Daniels and Davis couldn’t even begin to suggest, one that sugarcoats their contentious relationship. Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly, however, never seem like a probable match. Foster has rarely been seen onscreen as a wife (The Beaver aside), and she seems uneasy and slightly hysterical, undercutting what was, in Harden’s hands, a wonderful comedic role. Her pinched shrillness is immediately off-putting, while Winslet’s take on the slightly dippy Nancy invites audience loyalty all the more for not asking for it.
Most of the world, of course, didn’t see the original Broadway cast, but even they might be hard-pressed to find Carnage little more than an exercise in acting for its 80 minutes. A lot of juicy dialogue is hurled around—along with a purse and a glass or two—but the end result is surprisingly bloodless.
Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet in Carnage. Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company
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