Over the years we’ve seen legendary director Roman Polanski tackle a lot of movie genres. He haunted us with the demonic worshipers in “Rosemary’s Baby.” He directed perhaps the greatest neo-noir film of all-time in “Chinatown,” not to mention winning an Academy Award for Best Director for “The Pianist.” However Polanski’s upcoming film “Carnage,” which makes its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival’s Opening Gala tonight, is his first full-on comedy.
It’s taken over 40 years for Polanksi to try his hand in making people laugh, but with “Carnage” he does so in spades. The film’s plot revolves around two Brooklyn couples who get together to discuss an incident involving their 11-year-old boys. During an argument in the park one struck the other in the face with a stick, knocking out a couple teeth and causing some minor nerve damage.
Chistoph Waltz and Kate Winslet play Alan and Nancy Cowen, the parents of the stick-swinging son. Alan is a pompous lawyer for a pharmaceutical company with an addiction to his Blackberry, and his wife is a investment banker. John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster play Michael and Penelope Longstreet, the parents of the toothless victim. Michael sells hardware and Penelope works in a bookstore. The meeting takes place at the Longstreets’ apartment, who have done everything possible to be polite and courteous hosts.
Over the course of the next 80 minutes this meeting, which was supposed to be an attempt to “clear the air,” transcends into a contempt-filled discourse on all the fun topics — marriage, politics and careers. The entire film is one long exponentially escalating argument that starts with espresso and cobbler and evolves into a single-malt scotch swilling disaster. The contempt spreads like a virus even between husbands and wives. To say that the adults begin to act more like petty children than their own quarreling kids is an understatement.
Adapting a play into a compelling motion picture isn’t the simplest task in the world, especially when said play takes place in one room and has a grand total of four actors. However with the right director, an extremely talented cast and a witty rapid-fire script, it makes things a lot easier.
The film’s pace is unrelenting as the four actors with Oscar pedigree are at the top of their game. Reilly is pitch-perfect as the blue collar husband putting on airs for the more affluent couple, especially when he finally snaps. Waltz is excellent as the rude self-important corporate lawyer who doesn’t know how to ignore a phone call. Foster is at her passive-aggressive best, and Winslet shows us how not to handle your booze in adult situations of contrition.
It’s not the most ambitious film in Polanski’s career, however it’s smart and hilarious, proving the he can do just about anything — except film in the United States.