Monday, January 2, 2012

Carnage: Beneath the Veneer

Roman Polanski's Carnage.

The French playwright Yasmina Reza writes masterfully calibrated comedies of manners in which the central joke is the precariousness of the order carefully maintained by bright, complacent bourgeois; you wait for the moment when it flies off the track like a short-circuited toy train. Her brand of high comedy carries the influence of theatre of the absurd – it’s flavored with the acrid taste of Harold Pinter and Edward Albee – but she stays within the realm of realism. In Art, the play that put Reza on the map, the source of the tension in the friendship of three middle-aged male friends is an abstract expressionist painting that one of them pays an exorbitant amount for and displays proudly on the wall of his Paris apartment, while the others think it’s nonsense. The play is a comedy of menace, to use the critic Martin Esslin’s term for Pinter’s work: the rancor lies, coiled like a rattler, just beneath the jocular bantering. (In the hilarious 1998 Broadway production, Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina looked like they were having the time of their lives sparring with Reza’s glittering verbal arsenal.) God of Carnage is closer to Albee, specifically Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but with a much lighter touch. The set-up is irresistible. After one middle-school kid slams another with a hockey stick in response to an insult, effecting, considerable, though reparable, damage, their parents meet in an upper-West-Side Manhattan apartment to talk as reasonable adults. The reasonableness lasts barely half an hour. By the end of the play, all reason has been abandoned and all four psyches have been laid bare, along with the tattered seams of both marriages – and the stage is strewn with debris.

The marvelous 2009 Broadway production, which was helmed by Matthew Warchus (who also directed the play in the West End), starred Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini as the host couple and Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels as their guests. In Roman Polanski’s equally enjoyable movie version, the title abbreviated to Carnage, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play Penny and Michael Longstreet, in whose apartment the film takes place, while Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz step in as Nancy and Alan Cowan, whose son Zachary swung the stick. (The title comes from a speech Alan makes about the demon of discontent that he believes is lurking behind all human interaction.) Polanski is the ideal choice for this mordant, ironic material, and it’s fun to see how a different set of actors approaches the roles. The real revelation is Foster, who gives the performance of her career. Foster is a very smart actor, but I often find her reserved and off-putting. She only seems to warm up when her characters are in peril, which is why she’s so good in Panic Room, where her intelligence – you can practically see her synapses clicking away as she calculates her responses – enhances her acting rather than providing the only show. But warmth isn’t a requirement for Carnage, and what she demonstrates here, for the first time, is a gift for satire. 

God of Carnage (2009)
On stage Harden was hilarious as a woman whose liberal impulses mask an absolute conviction about her own righteousness, but Foster takes the character farther, into a hysterical vision of herself as the victim of the moral inadequacy of everyone around her. Her personality is a string wound so tight that she pings in disdain whenever anyone offends her sensibilities, as they do continually. When Alan reacts against the pedantic note in her presentation of the situation, or when Nancy won’t second her assurance that the Longstreets’ son Ethan is completely guiltless, we can read the disappointment on her stricken face, the certainty that once again she’s tried so hard to do the right thing and been kicked in the teeth for her efforts. Probably all of us have encountered women like Foster’s Penny, especially those of us who have spent time in academia. (Penny is an anthropologist, a scholar though not a teacher.) It was Penny’s idea to invite the Cowans over for a chat, but there’s no generosity in the gesture; the venue is her choice, her comfort zone, and she’s the one who sets the terms, down to the choice of pastry: her fruit cobbler, which gives her an opportunity to show off her culinary savvy.  

Foster makes a miniature symphony out of the section about the cobbler: the irritation when she discovers that the maid has put it in the refrigerator (“I don’t know what language I’m supposed to use to talk to that woman,” she complains to her husband, her frustration fraying the edges of her political correctness); the self-delight as she rings out the secret to keeping the dessert from liquefying (“Gingerbread crumbs!”); the superiority of her expertise when she points out that of course she cut the apples and pears in different-sized chunks because they don’t cook at the same temperature, or pooh-poohs Michael’s claim that she got the recipe from his mother (who doesn’t use two kinds of fruit in her cobbler), or passes judgment on the question of whether a cobbler is a cake or a pie. The lines are beauties (Reza and Polanski co-wrote the screenplay, which sticks close to its source) but Foster completes the portrait of a woman who wears her pride in her fair-mindedness like a bumper sticker but brooks no argument, whether about dessert or about parenting, a woman who’s always on the verge of going over the edge into martyrdom.

Polanski on the set of Carnage.

Reza has an unerring instinct for gender distinctions; a lot of the humor in the script emerges from the distinctly male and female behaviors of the characters, which, in the course of the battle, sometimes result in temporary alliances of the two women and the two men. Winslet gives Nancy, an investment broker, a fluttering instability that manifests itself when she projectile-vomits the cobbler (staining Penny’s prize coffee-table book, an out-of-print Kokoschka catalogue), then proceeds to get smashed on scotch and turn on her unengaged, all-business lawyer husband, who’s forever yammering on his cell phone. In the Broadway production Hope Davis was the buttoned-up one whose smiling demeanor concealed years of bitter resentment; Winslet is simultaneously elegant and teetering. And the two men supply contrasting – and in an odd way, complementary – models of aggressive masculinity: the cynical, hard-ass litigator, the unimpressed plain Joe who’s held on to his proletarian roots. It doesn’t take long for them to get to class insults when Michael, overhearing Alan’s instructions to his client, the CEO of a drug company facing a lawsuit over a medication with horrifying side effects, comments, “You got some funny line of work,” and Michael asks him what he does for a living. (The answer, that he sells hardware, generates a couple of prize put-downs.)

This is a minority view, but I didn’t buy Waltz’s Oscar-winning turn as a Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, and I had the same problem with him as the sadistic circus owner in Water for Elephants: he struck me as hambone, with an unfortunate high-pitched voice that doesn’t match either character. He’s lowered it for Carnage, and his ironically detached line readings are extremely entertaining. The only one of the quartet who doesn’t seem quite right is John C. Reilly, though he works hard and he has some good moments. You may have trouble imagining him and Gandolfini in the same role, and that’s the trouble. In the course of the New York production, the part brought out Gandolfini’s vulgarian side – his Tony Soprano side – but Reilly is too gentle a performer to get into the nitty-gritty of this character. (He’s best when he’s playing naïfs.) Still, the writing bails him out in the scene where Michael, on the phone with his nagging mother, realizes that the drug her doctor prescribed for her is the one whose maker Alan is representing and he tries to get Alan to explain to her why she needs to throw the pills away. (Of course, Alan, ever the vigilant attorney watching out for his client, takes the phone and tells her she’s in no danger.)

A couple of moments in the movie fall flat  when Penny calls Zachary a threat to Homeland Security, an outburst that sounds tacked on (it isn’t something you can imagine Penny saying), and the last couple of beats, which fizzle out, as if Polanski couldn’t figure out how to end it. Otherwise it’s a taut, uproarious eighty minutes. Reportedly Reza was annoyed when God of Carnage received the Olivier Award for Best Comedy rather than Best Drama in London; maybe she thinks she really is writing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s a relief that she’s not. I’ve never found all that psychodrama and affect very convincing; I think this kind of material works way better as comedy. Carnage won’t change anybody’s life, but its literacy and ensemble make it a highlight of the current movie season.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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