French playwright Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” which won the 2009 Tony Award for best play, has been adapted for the big screen and titled simply “Carnage.” The screenplay was written by Reza and the film’s director, Roman Polanski. Unlike the original play, which was set in Paris, the Broadway production and film are set in New York.
As the movie opens, children play in a Brooklyn park — and a boy who’s being teased by fellow tweens turns to face them. A slim tree branch he swipes through the air leaves another boy injured, and the film cuts quickly to two sets of parents attempting to smooth over the hurt.
Investment banker Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet) and corporate attorney Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) are parents of the “bully,” while writer Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) and wholesaler Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) are parents of the “victim.”
The Longstreets have invited the Cowans to their apartment hoping for some sort of resolution, but obstacles abound. First, Penelope’s fondness for melodrama and martyrdom. Then Alan’s inability to leave work at the office. When Penelope’s apple-pear cobbler doesn’t sit well with Nancy, things get messy.
Penelope cares deeply about everything — from the contents of her refrigerator to the plight of people in Darfur. Alan readily admits to not giving a damn about much of anything. It’s this contrast in characters, and the conflict it creates, that gives the film its bite.
Nearly the entire film, only 80 minutes in length, is shot in real time using just a single set — mainly the Longsteet’s living room. But kitchen and bathroom are sometimes called into service — as are bucket, blow dryer and bottle of Scotch.
Foster describes the film as “a comedy of manners.” Manners dissolve quickly into mayhem as marital spats and misunderstandings spiral out of control. The more civilized these couples seek to become, the more their savagery shines. It’s perfectly pleasurable to watch.
The movie feels faster and sharper than the play somehow. The dialogue feels funnier. The absurdity feels more plausible. The camera allows close-ups that just aren’t possible when watching a play performed on stage. And the movie’s ending has an unexpected twist.
Still, parents leave both play and movie asking similar questions. Were the bully’s actions justified? Should he apologize? What if the apology’s insincere? When can parents lecture other people’s children? How far does the apple (or pear) fall from the tree? Is being a “snitch” a bad thing? Should parents fight their children’s battles?
Note: Although “Carnage” is rated “R” for language, many parents will find it rather mild and feel perfectly comfortable taking their teens (though teens will be less amused than adults by the film’s satirical slant on parenting).
Coming up: More couples behaving badly, My favorite New Year’s message