Thursday, December 15, 2011

CARNAGE: Roman Polanski's version of Yasmina Reza's theater piece opens

Do you recall Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski's light touch where comedy is concerned? Nor do I.
I do have a soft spot in my heart for the utter misfire that was The Fearless Vampire Killers (something that bad needs to be put out of its misery, fast), and I never saw Que? (or What? or, as Roger Ebert's review calls that film, Diary of Forbidden Dreams) but I have long heard it was a massive stinker. So, no -- don't let this guy near comedy, please.
Mr. Polanski tends toward the dark, and over the years he has done quite well for himself (and us) by cleaving to it. Not surprisingly, he has made a rather dark concoction out of something that TrustMovies had been told (and audiences evidently thought) was a comedy: Yasmina Reza's hit play The God of Carnage. Polanski's shortened version, running just 80 minutes (and still too long), is called simply CARNAGE. And indeed it makes mild carnage out of its progenitor.

Opening out into the cool, crisp air of a park, the filmmaker (shown at left) begins and ends with the kids who create the problem that brings our four top-notch but quite miscast actors together. For the remainder of the film, just as I am told happened in the play, we're stuck in a New York apartment with four characters of whom (in the movie version, at least) we quickly tire. Which bring us to the abject misfire of the casting. With the exception of John C. Reilly, this quartet could hardly have been more poorly conceived. They possess "big names," yes, but didn't someone mention to anyone else connected with this fiasco that three of the four are not given to comedy? There is hardly a genuine laugh to be had in the entire movie. What mild humor there is comes from the heavy-handed irony, present from the outset, in which our little troupe tries to act like civilized people while utterly hating each other (and themselves). We quickly "get" it. Then we are asked to keep "getting it" for the rest of the film.

Worse, the movie is obviously a "set-up" -- a manufactured thing with little of the organic about it. Several times the visiting couple appears to be leaving (as well it should). And yet the two stick around on the faintest, silliest of pretexts. Noel Coward might have made us believe this through some witty dialog, but that certainly doesn't happen here. So we just shrug and say, OK: Feed me this obvious drivel, and let's get on with it.

As to that cast, instead of the theatrical (and comedic) heavy-hitters who appeared on Broadway, we get Jodie Foster in place of Marcia Gay Harden, Christoph Waltz going on for Jeff Daniels, Kate Winslet rather than Hope Davis, and John C. Reilly in place of James Gandolfini.  Having not seen the Broadway version, I can't stake my life on the fact that its actors did a better job with the material, but -- really -- simply compare (yes, I know, that's odious) and you can spot a lot of reasons why the theatrical troupe would be better. First of all, we know how truly funny, each in his/her various way, Harden, Daniels, Davis and Gandolfini can be. But we would hardly say the same about Winslet, Waltz and especially Foster. Put these generally heavyweight, serious actors under someone like Polanski, whose sense of comedy, not to mention irony, is heavy-handed, and that explains much of what we see. (Only Mr. Reilly is a genuine comic actor, with probably a broader range than we yet know, and while Mr. Waltz may have done some comedy in his native Austria, we haven't seen it over here.)

Ms. Foster, above, whose dramatic acting skills are often memorable, is so out of place here that when she tries to smile and loosen up a bit, the rictus grin looks like an homage to Mr. Sardonicus. Real comic actors are supremely comfortable, even as they are convincing us how uncomfortable they are. Foster appears genuinely uncomfortable throughout, and that's no fun for anyone. Even her most dramatic moments register as false, but that may be because they are supposed to register as funny.

Ms Winslet, above, fares better, perhaps because she understands how to relax within her confines.  Ultimately, she, too, can't tap much humor out of this tired and obvious situation, but at least she's not difficult to watch.

Mr Waltz, above, with an accent that comes and goes, from Austrian to mid-Atlantic to sort-of-American, is the character that puts us in closest touch with the god of carnage, as he calls it. His near-constant and inappropriate (given the situation) cell-phone usage grows more and more annoying without  -- once again -- growing any more amusing.

Only Mr. Reilly,above, manages the comfort level necessary to perform his paces. He's very good, as usual, but by having little to play off, given the other three non-comic actors, his is a performance in a kind of vacuum.

The major misfire of the season (if not the entire year) -- an awards contender? Oh, please -- Carnage, from Sony Pictures Classics, opens tomorrow, Friday, December 16, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center, Cinemas 1 2 3, and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. In Los Angeles, see it at the Arclight or The Landmark. In the following days and weeks, it will open across the country; click here to view all currently scheduled playdates.

No comments:

Post a Comment