Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Carnage (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


I have to admit that I find Roman Polanski refreshing in our  age of seemingly endless true stories and conventional dramas with their all too pat endings, neatly tied up like hot cross buns that make our soft drinks extra sweet. It is curiously comforting to me that Polanski  is still working and directing, regardless of his personal pruriency. Who else but Polanski to make us a little uncomfortable and sputter on our popcorn , to delineate the devils and demons that lurk between the thin veneer of our white picket fences or underneath our Gothic Brownstone apartments in New York City? This is the oeuvre of Polanski as a poet of suspicion and group hysteria with an often comic edge and he delivers again in his latest "Carnage" based on a play by Yasmina Reza.

The first shot zeroes  in on a schoolyard. Clusters of children are shown like sweatered magpies. There is hostile movement. A kid is pushed. Abruptly the kid picks up a stick and unceremoniously slaps the aggressor in the face. Time marches on without notice.
Penelope and Michael (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) are typing up a medical report detailing what happened to their son who got assaulted by the stick wielding Zachary. Zachary's parents Alan and Nancy  (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) are positioned behind them nervous and edgy. 

Penelope and Michael, seemingly having the upper hand, are all too eager to extend their graces and smooth things over. As they discuss the report between themselves, they agree to soften the harsh language even though Zachary has permanently lost two teeth during the assault. Jodie Foster's Penelope in wanting to appear the understanding peacemaker on the surface is wound up tight. And Michael is tooo diplomatic. Alan and Nancy agree to stay for cobbler. But the cobbler is mushy and frozen. The couple is perpetually on the edge of leaving. While pushing for the elevator on the edge of insult, the strange, aloof couple ends up staying.
And you haven't seen anything yet. 

You have to hand it to Polanski. Not since Linda Blair in "The Exorcist" has there been a more abruptly uncomfortable and comical vomit scene. Polanski goes even further than Woody Allen here, but the humorous lines delivered with an unabashed freedom by Reilly and Winslet will have you hooting underneath the nervousness. 

Waltz, who, in my opinion always seems in danger of being typecast since "Inglorious Basterds," does wonderfully here as the clinical and icy attorney. He is a literal cold fish, gnashing his teeth. A cell phone is even more obnoxious in this film than in real life.

Reilly is also a highlight as a charming teddy bear type with a traitorous and aggressive mean streak. When drunk, he tries anything to be liked. 

Jodie Foster is a bit hard to take near the end as a quivering mass of rage, but she was pushed to the brink after all. 

Although at first the film has a sitcom potential to be a "Saturday Night Live" comedy (i.e. Neighbors) the sharp dialogue elevates it to a dark comedy of errors. And while we may not really see anything groundbreaking here (as in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Boys in the Band" ) the gleeful toxicity that Waltz and Reilly bring to their roles make passive aggressiveness into something new.

The one weak spot in "Carnage" is  the hamster. The lone varmint is just a bit too cutesy, like the meddlesome squirrel in "Caddyshack". But don't let that make you queasy. "Carnage" is better to see than to explain. The film should be the unapologetic centerpiece to any dysfunctional Thanksgiving. Every object in the film from a cellphone to an art book or a bouquet of tulips, is either vibrating with menace or wilting in panic. Even the right angled apartment walls seem to jut forward in spatial rage.

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