the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Carnage (2011)

Roman’s Holiday

Roman Polanski is a force. Whatever one believes about his private life there is no erasing his mark as a director: Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, Macbeth... to list just a few. Directing is only one of his talents. He’s been acting and producing for decades as well. Unfortunately old age has seen a sad inverse relationship grow between his output and his notoriety. Having recently ducked a significant prison sentence for fleeing trial decades ago he returns to the screen with “Carnage” - a terse comedy of manners.

“Carnage” is an interesting choice for its minimalism. The “action” is confined to a few rooms and it moves in real time lasting an hour and a third. We see four seasoned actors playing two sides of the upwardly mobil divide. The plot centers around an incident where one of the couple’s middle school son assaults the other couple’s boy with a stick; resulting in the loss of two teeth. Jodi Foster and John C. Reilly play two strivers. He is a successful high end appliance salesman and she is a want-to-be writer who has global social concerns. Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz are successful banker/lawyers who are higher up the ladder who can barely hide their scorn at John and Jodi’s provincialism. The fact that their son as the aggressor makes them disposed to being amiable - but the facade seems to crack from the start.

Polanski’s choice of having the incident appear under the opening credits cleverly plays into the trivialness of the event which sparks the adult firestorm. There are dozens of intelligent, well meaning people who find themselves in violent confrontations over parking spaces, places on line, seating arrangements etc. This film is a homage to our pettiness which plays nicely against our belief in our superiority. Upwardly mobil Brooklynites are certainly fertile ground for funny social commentary. Oddly, given the credentials of all the principles, this project misses the mark.

Polanski knows a great deal about theater, acting and film. I personally watched him perform the lead in Amadeus in Paris and can attest to his skill beyond directing. No doubt he is familiar with the constraints of translating static, dialogue driven narratives to the large screen. Ironically his first major feature, “Knife in the Water”, takes place on a sailboat with three characters. This work is a triumph of directing and should be viewed by any filmmaker interested in making the most with limited space and personnel. “Repulsion” and “Death and the Maiden” were less successful artistically but once again Polanski did wonders with actors in small spaces. Unfortunately the master forgot his lesson; or didn’t bother to prepare for class. “Carnage” is claustrophobic and unfunny. Three of the four actors did their best. Christoph Watz performance was sub-par. This failed to aid the cause but the shortfall of the piece should be squarely laid on Polanski’s shoulders. Perhaps the veteran director fell prey to the idea that “light” comedy requires “light” preparation; or maybe Polanski isn’t that funny. It’s hard to know. Maybe he deserves kudos for trying something new rather than resting on his laurels. When a master stumbles - it’s important to examine the terrain. It strange but perhaps this hard-nosed erudite European, who has seen more in his lifetime than most, should have spent time with Seth Mcfarland. No doubt the creator of “Family Guy” and “American Dad” could teach him about social satire; in turn maybe Seth could learn something about real culture. It’s an odd pair but given Polanski’s extracurricular activities one sense they’d have a fair amount in common.

PS - I found it odd that Jodi Foster would choose to work with Polanski. I vividly remember watching her performance in “The Accused” - a heart-wrenching story based on actual events. A disadvantaged woman was gang raped in a bar and prosecutors balked at bringing charges. I’m not equating this tale with the accusations against Polanski. But there is no doubt that, given a cursory facts of the case, Mr. Polanski failed to act in the best interest of a young female child. Ms. Foster doesn’t need to publicly denounce him - but she doesn’t need to support him in a collaboration; ditto for Mel Gibson. Then again maybe it’s a sign of good character to come to the aid of friends who are in trouble. It’s hard to know.

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