Comedy is one of the hardest genres to get right. Films that succeed rank amongst our fondest memories, and we go back to them time and time again. Films that get it wrong are painfully awkward to watch and instantly forgettable, as anyone who has watched one of the many incarnations of the … Movie franchise can attest. Roman Polanski’s Carnage is definitely one of the former, and one of the funniest films I have seen in years.
The setup is simple: two 11-year olds have a playground argument, which leads to one of them hitting the other with a stick. The two sets of parents decide that the issue needs to be addressed, and the Cowans head to the Longstreets’ Manhattan apartment to try and sort things out. The rest of the film is contained in this apartment and the corridor outside, reflecting the director’s love for confinement as well as the fact that this was adapted from a play, Yasmin Reza’s The God of Carnage (she also wrote the screenplay with Polanski). It’s a basic premise, and in a traditional sense very little happens in the film. And yet from a personal perspective, you see everything.
The four actors perform magnificently in their roles. January has already seen a lot of fantastic characters played by actors at the top of their game, yet Carnage has four that threaten to eclipse them all. Jodie Foster is Penelope Longstreet, a high-minded outraged liberal who, we are told, makes the best cobbler around. Cobbler so good, in fact, that Nancy Cowan projectile vomits it over the room. Played by Kate Winslet, she is a busy professional trying not to hate her husband, Christoph Waltz’s Alan. Threatening to steal the show, Waltz struts around the set without care for any other person, constantly talking into his Blackberry and antagonising the others with sly jabs. Making up the quartet is John C. Reilly as Penelope’s husband Michael, a man clearly uncomfortable with his social status and with a seeming hatred of most things. He abandoned a hamster on the street, and sees nothing wrong with that. These four archetypes are deconstructed very efficiently in front of your eyes as the situation degenerates into utter carnage. The script zings with line after line of cleverly constructed snark, delivered with great enthusiasm by a cast put through their paces and managing a full range of emotions from poised professionalism to hysteria. If there is a moral to this story, it is that humans are, at their cores, awful people. We can dress up in suits and pretend to be polite, but deep down we can’t wait to rip each other to pieces. And that message makes for enormous comic potential.
Carnage is going to be a hard sell to audiences. An 80-minute film on a single set doesn’t sound that thrilling compared to the frenetic special effects offered by something like Chronicle. Furthermore, a comedy from the man who brought you serious dramas like The Pianist and Chinatown doesn’t necessarily sound too fun. But you would be wrong. Carnage is perfectly paced and doesn’t outstay its welcome, the script is pitch-perfect, and the cast clearly revel in their roles. Above all else, it’s hilarious. Even if you’re not convinced, go and see it. You won’t regret it.