Two kids have an altercation in a park, one cops a smack in the mouth and requires dental treatment, and the parents – Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster) and Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Walz, Kate Winslet) – meet up at the Longstreet’s Manhattan apartment to discuss how best to address the situation.
Both couples are determinedly civil and conciliatory initially, but when the meeting is drawn out due to Alan’s mobile phone compulsion and Nancy falling ill and vomiting spectacularly all over the living room, cracks appear in the polite facades. A bottle of Scotch is added to the equation, and the evening degenerates into petty squabbling and point-scoring, with all four characters at each others’ throats as alliances change and marital resentments surface. What began as a très ‘adult’ interchange ends up as a childish shitfight far worse than the bingle between the boys that brought the warring parties together in the first place.
Directed and co-written by Roman Polanski, and based on French playwright Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage, this is a funny, savagely satirical look at middle-class political correctness, the ineptness of contemporary parenting that borrows heavily from pop culture ‘wisdom’, and the hypocrisies that lurk beneath the surface of polite society.
In a sense, it’s curious that Polanski has been drawn to this essentially theatrical strategy of throwing a group of conflicted characters into a confined space, turning up the heat, and letting the pressure cooker environment wreak havoc. It’s a time-tested and dramatically fertile setup, of course, but imposes all sorts of obvious restraints filmically.
On the other hand, it’s not hard to imagine Polanski finding such a challenge appealing. Then there is the freedom that comes with a small budget production like this – what price artistic liberation?
Indeed, this may have been the bait that attracted the fine cast. The opportunity to work with Polanski on a claustrophobic one-room (mostly) set where there is no space to hide must have been an exquisitely terrifying prospect. All the performers are in the glare of the spotlight throughout; the success or failure of the film rests squarely with them and the material they have to work with.
Happily, both are up to the task. In fact, the actors delight in their roles. And well they might – the script is witty, scathing in its underlying commentary, psychologically astute, and – o joy of joys – adheres strictly to Aristotle’s unity of dramatic time. More than strictly, actually. Unusually these days, dramatic time is live time in this piece.
I’m known to lament to those who will listen (not many, and decreasing by the conversation) that many movies today would work far better if filmmakers paid at least some heed to the Aristotelian unities. It’s a trifle disconcerting for me, then, to report that in this instance live dramatic time did pose a small problem: the characters got drunk too fast. Easy to forgive, however, when the humour and satire works as well as it does here.
So, what did Polanski bring to this as a film? Could it have succeeded as well or better on stage? Well, the second question is academic, really. I enjoyed the movie immensely, and that’s all that matters.
I’m a Polanski fan. Take that as a disclaimer if you will. I like the way he crafts his movies. He doesn’t strive to put his mark on his work; everything he does is in the service of the piece. So it is here.
The camerawork is not intrusive, leaving the actors to get on with their stuff, yet is mercilessly claustrophobic, honing in on the minutiae of the adults’ communications and their underlying sub-agendas, and hemming in the action within the walls of the living room. By contrast, there are a couple of telling long external shots at the beginning and end of the movie that feature the kids in a park, which have the effect of simplifying the goings on between them. It’s a profound contrast.
Precious petal PC parents of today will probably find plenty to object to in this movie. Good, I say. They deserve to feel attacked. If you’re not one of ‘them’, go along and have a good belly laugh. Don’t feel too smug, though – you’ll probably see aspects of yourself as the characters fall, nay crash, from grace.
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives