There’s nothing terribly wrong with Carnage, the film version of Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning stage comedy God of Carnage. But there’s nothing trippingly right with it either. What bubbled on stage lacks fizz on screen. For a scant 80 minutes of running time we watch two civilzed New York couples do battle in a New York apartment and strip themselves of all the trappings of civilization. What matter of life and death is at stake? The unseen schoolboy son of hyper-tense Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) and her blue-collar husband Michael (John C. Reilly) had two teeth knocked out in a playground by the unseen schoolboy son of peacemaker Nancy Cowen (Kate Winslet) and her lawyer husband Alan (Christoph Waltz). So the Cowen’s have come to the Longstreet’s well-appointed Brooklyn apartment to negotiate a settlement. The film, like the play, never leaves the apartment. On stage, it didn’t matter. We were all in this fight together. And the definitive Broadway cast, Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini as the Longstreets and Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels as the Cowens, kept us rapt. On screen, with gifted actors who fit their roles less comfortably, the artificiality of the piece becomes choking. Reilly lacks the threat of Gandolfini and Foster misses Harden’s warmth. Winslet and especially Waltz fare better, but even they can’t cut through the creeping claustrophobia. Being closed in, however, has always appealed to Polanski (see Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, Death and the Maiden and The Pianist). And he does everything but mount the camera on a trapeze to create the illusion of movement within the frame. It’s a hell of a stunt, but one to be admired more than enjoyed. The film version of Carnage hasn’t just lost God from its title, it’s lost the laughs from the play that brought it life.
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