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The Sick Of It: Carnage Reviewed
Chris Roberts , February 1st, 2012 09:28

Roman Polanski's adaptation of a Yasmina Reza stage play has been hailed as among "the funniest and most intelligent films of the year" by such authorities as The Daily Mail. Our man Chris Roberts was mildly amused by the sight of Kate Winslet throwing up

The first thing to point out is that Polanski isn't Polanski any more. If you come to Carnage expecting the transgression, daring and subversion of the work of his heyday, you'll be disappointed. Yes, you will get to see Kate Winslet suddenly projectile-vomit, but this adaptation of Yasmina Reza's stage play God Of Carnage isn't interested in probing the themes which made Polanski's best films so hauntingly, unsettlingly great that many felt they could defend the nauseating crimes of his personal life. Except for a few deft camera angles, this could have been directed by Kenneth Branagh or anyone who has read a few books and is professionally competent. Now 78, the director here doesn't take risks, unless you consider the play itself to be controversial.

You'd have to bend over backwards to suggest that the claustrophobia here is as intense as Repulsion or Rosemary's Baby, the human relationships as twisted as Cul-de-sac, the male-female tensions as vivid as his underrated late flourish Bitter Moon. You could just about make a case that the craftsmanship of The Pianist, Oliver Twist and The Ghost Writer are evident. Yet while the four characters in Carnage are necessarily upper middle-class, it's a pity that the entire feel of the film is too. This won't startle or unnerve anybody. It's a solid, self-consciously pseudo-intellectual night at the theatre. Its sales team have already decided that quoting The Daily Mail – "One of the funniest and most intelligent films of the year." – is a good move. I'd suggest "See! Posho Winslet! Hurl Her Guts Up! Lol-fest!" would bring in more of those who appreciate Polanski's sinister masterworks of the '60s and '70s.

This is a minor chamber piece, a talky four-hander, tastefully short at 79 minutes. It's shot in real time, without ellipses: Polanski has spoken of that being what attracted him. That aspect is handled very well by cast and crew. It's distracting too, though. Should you watch it a second time – and few will – you'd be alertly peering to see where the camera goes a few seconds before Winslet's massive sicking-up session, to work out How It Was Done. A plastic bag of fake sick in her pocket? A crew member running out of shot and funnelling it into her gob while everyone else looks the other way? Or is she so 'method' that she chomped on a bar of soap half an hour earlier? I digress. I told you it was distracting. Like 3D or CGI, only cheaper, and with a completely incongruous dash of the Farrelly brothers.

So: we have two couples. When their sons are engaged in a playground squabble, one hitting the other, 'power couple' Nancy and Alan (Winslet and Christoph Waltz) visit ultra-PC liberal Penelope (Jodie Foster) and her initially passive husband Michael (John C. Reilly). Things begin in a civilised, conciliatory manner. Then competitiveness and bickering infiltrate. Alan's continually answering his cell phone, which bugs the other couple and his resentful wife. Everyone starts to blame each other and accuse their 'rivals' of bad parenting. They use phrases like 'accountability skills' and 'behavioural issues'. They graduate from coffee to whisky and start trading insults. Bonds are formed, then broken – couple versus couple, women versus men, everyone for themselves. There's the threat of physical violence, which never bursts forth. Eventually, everyone slumps in fatigue, their bourgeois masks demolished, their general angst exposed.

For all the limited scale and locked-down location, there's great potential in such a set-up if the writing and acting are good enough. Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? wasn't exactly a bore, and the premise of adults losing perspective over a relatively minor incident involving a child was brilliantly explored by the recent Australian TV drama The Slap. The trouble here is that the writing isn't particularly astute or acute. OK, it's Yasmina Reza: the play was a big hit and she has many fans. Her text seems to me indulgent and directionless. There's no arc: everybody just flails, pissed-off and angry. It goes nowhere much. Lines like "Women think too much" are intended as perceptive or incendiary, but come off lame. In life, the visiting couple would simply get up and leave after five minutes; here, they stay for no other reason than that the playwright needs them to. The points it makes about our all being primitives underneath the veneer have been examined more deeply and arrestingly a thousand times before – Luis Buñuel would find this tame and insipid – and it's very rarely funny. I laughed maybe twice. After Winslet's chuck-fountain, Foster groans, "She barfed all over my books! My 1957 Kokoshka catalogue!" And when Winslet's ranting later, the misanthropic husband observes, "You certainly picked up after you tossed your cookies..."

Some may be keen to see Foster and Winslet, two of the best-known actresses of our times, 'go head-to-head', much as some used to be eager to see De Niro and Pacino 'face off'. It doesn't spark though. As ever, Winslet is a curiously cold, unconvincing screen presence, technically good but always somehow still Kate Winslet (in that respect, she's the female Leonardo DiCaprio). And Foster seems strangely ill at ease throughout. Her character's meant to be, sure, but beyond that Foster appears uncomfortable, as if trying too hard to inject passion into wooden lines. Waltz does comic-nasty effortlessly, but leaves himself nowhere to go from there. And this isn't the film to finally gain Reilly the recognition he deserves as a great actor. He was much better in 2007's Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, but then that was a better written, funnier, more profound film.

I guess we haven't talked about Polanski all that much really. With Carnage, he doesn't do lots wrong with what he's got to play with, but that's because he doesn't do lots. Try-hard critics will hunt earnestly for a resemblance between, say, the corridor shots here and those in Death And The Maiden, but more from dutiful respect for his past than genuine cinephilia. So don't believe anyone who tells you this is that rarest of rainbows, 'a true return to form'. Concise as it is, the dusty, dated, Carnage only resonates when Waltz sighs wearily, "Why does everything have to be so exhausting?"