Some people claim to hate dramas that consist entirely of characters sitting in a room talking to each other. That hatred sometimes goes so far as to make the person say they will NEVER watch films like that, and to a certain extent, I understand the feeling. After all, if a camera has the ability to capture SO MUCH, and technology has taken us to a point that the possibilities of what film can show us are basically infinite, why make a movie that limits itself so much? "If I wanna hear people talk, I can just go somewhere where there are people talking and listen to them." My personal take on this, though, is that it depends entirely on the context and on the dynamics of what goes on in the film. It's my opinion that dialogue, when handled expertly, can have the same searing impact as an explosion-filled action sequence or a bombastic musical number, even if the dialogue occurs entirely within the confines of a room - just watch 12 Angry Men if you don't believe me. Roman Polanski's most recent cinematic effort, Carnage, had all the potential to be equally great, considering the subject matter and its top-notch cast. I'm still recommending the film, because it's engaging enough, it's economical in length, and it features a very strong performance from Jodie Foster, but in several ways, this is kind of a missed opportunity.
Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly) are a married couple who live in an apartment with their kid, who recently got into a fight at school with the son of another couple, Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz). So, the two couples convene in the apartment to discuss the situation and to figure out alternatives to resolve the conflict. The meeting seems to end quickly and amiably enough, and just as Nancy and Alan are about to walk out, something happens that leads them to go back into the apartment, and thus, the discussion between the two couples gets protracted. Awkward niceties, sarcasm and bickering ensue.
What shocks me the most about Carnage is that, considering the fact that, similarly to 12 Angry Men, it's a film in which characters are in a room together talking about events we didn't witness, this was a terrific opportunity to give us dialogue drenched in moral/ethical debates in terms of whether it's correct for a child to respond in a particular way in a situation at school and in terms of the roles of parents in the resolution of conflicts of this sort... but Carnage dedicates about 15% of its dialogue to that. What does the remaining 85% focus on? The frustration over having to dry soiled pants. The reasons that may have led a character to throw up. An argument over whether a cake had gone bad or not. A cellphone that won't stop ringing. Yes, the most mundane stuff you can imagine. See, this is the type of thing that will bolster the argument of people who believe dialogue-driven dramas are worthless - they might say of Carnage "If I wanted to see this, I can just go watch my parents argue with the neighbors whenever I want." But like I said, it all depends on HOW the plot is exploited. I believe that realistic situations in films can be every bit as engrossing as long as the right amount of edge, spice or dramatic heft is heaped upon them. But in the case of Carnage, to make matters worse, the realism isn't even handled particularly well. This film is based on a play, and it shows - and the WAY in which it shows is pretty dispiriting. The film features an excess of the staged fakeries that tend to characterize plays. It has too many of those moments in which a character is asked a question and he/she will answer by changing the subject entirely thus leading to a complete shift in the nature of the conversation that the characters are having. It's also got an exaggerated amount of those moments in which a character will be sitting down, make a decision, and immediately stand up in order to convey his/her resoluteness. The fact that there are so many REPETITIONS of this sort of thing makes it all feel kind of artificial, which is, of course, a detriment in a film that's aiming for authenticity.
This should've easily been a vehicle that gave all four of these actors the potential to earn acting nominations, a la Doubt. It's too bad that the great Kate Winslet does nothing but look constipated the entire time, Christoph Waltz's character spends most of the film answering his cellphone (a gag that's funny the first four times, but by the fourteenth time, it gets kind of ridiculous), and John C. Reilly does too much REACTING to what everyone else is saying and doesn't get a chance to convey much from his end, which makes it impossible for his character to ever register as someone with thoughts and emotions of his own. The lone bright spot in the acting department is Jodie Foster, who nicely acquits herself here after her double-duty failure at directing and acting in The Beaver earlier this year. Foster is truly given the space she needs to shine, as she has about three scenes in which her character gets emotional, and she gets the chance to display anger and frustration effortlessly. This is incredibly refreshing, considering the fact that it's been a long time since we've seen Foster at the top of her game.
I'm giving what you may call a "reluctant" passing grade to Carnage because it's elevated by Foster's performance and by the fact that, while it focuses too much on mundane trifles, at least it does it for less than 80 minutes, which means it never quite reaches the point of annoyance. Also, I fully admit that the film has occasional bursts of humor. Still, I would've almost liked it if some of the silly humor had been sacrificed to make this a film that featured serious, thematically complex verbal jabs between these two couples. The fact that each of the couples was basically there to serve as the lawyer for their kid should've made for a script full of moral questions and quandaries, and with at least an insight or two on parenthood, but that's largely absent from Carnage. I won't go as far as to tell you not to see it, but I'll warn you that, if you're expecting something with the dramatic/acting caliber of the typical Oscar-bound drama that gets released around this time of the year, you may be disappointed.