Ever since Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play “God of Carnage” announced its cast, I admit I’ve been a bit wary. The play, which I saw on Broadway in 2009, was rousing and wonderful, specifically because it was handled by a pitch-perfect cast — Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden — that served the medium well. And I think that group would have served the film just as well, properly drilling things down to the more intimate medium of cinema.
Oddly, though, the quartet assembled for Polanski’s stab — Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster — by and large swings for the fences and plays to the non-existent rafters far too often for the story to settle in on celluloid. Obviously that’s plenty owed to the direction of the material, which is a bit cumbersome elsewhere, too, book-ending the tightened quarrel at the center of the story with a superfluous depiction of the inciting incident. Meanwhile, while the tactic of closing things in and embracing the staginess of the tale actually works for material like this, having the actors perform it in such broad gestures really begins to eat away at and borderline lampoon what made the original work so cutting.
With that in mind, Foster is meant to be the significant awards hopeful for this film, but I found her handling of the material grating. I’m trying to be kind here. If I were in the balcony or in the mezzanine, it may have sung. But here, with the intimacy of Pawel Edelman’s camera, I just cringed. She blows past eleven and it doesn’t even feel all that motivated half the time.
Similarly, Reilly is doing his best Gandolfini impression here, and he’s not exactly wearing it like a glove. Like most of the actors, the quality of dialogue gets him through, but I found him very difficult to buy in a role that Gandolfini seemed born to play.
Waltz is a high mark, for sure. And he does a nice job of owning the role rather than depicting it in the same general strokes as those who came before. His eerie calm adds quite a lot, but nevertheless, he still finds himself in that two-dimensional theatrical rhythm a bit too often.
Winslet, strangely enough — the person I was most concerned about (overexposure) and the element Guy was least enthused about in Venice — was the best part of the experience for me. Maybe it’s the role, I don’t know. After all, I did all but write Hope Davis a fan letter after I saw her tackle it on stage. But there was something about Winslet’s grounded performance, much more suited to the medium, that made it work better for me.
But “Carnage” (neutered from its original title) is basically a mess. It’s a mad dash that feels less like a fully realized confrontation than it does a bloated set-up for another movie. And I find myself wondering what the great Mike Nichols might have done with the it after proving again and again that no one understands this kind of terrain better.