The Early Evening Cobbler Club (or Carnage)

I’ve remembered! I last wrote that I’ve been so bound up in one of Edward Rutherfurd’s era-hopping epics that I developed a minor case of medi-amnesia, nearly forgetting all other artsiness I’d consumed in the recent past. But one small memory made it through the wormhole. Not long ago I broke away from our James Bond marathon, now in critical phase with Roger Moore, for a taste of European refinement, which being European could mean either highly classy, highly vulgar, or… well, highly vulgar. But such was not the case with Roman Polanski’s Carnage, based on the play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza.

Huge pun alert – it was playful, and leisurely directed by the truest of pros, but despite it being a story sold completely on its punch, the buildup to the inevitable punching is perfunctory and the conflicts dull and worn down by over-rehearsal. I’ll devote the time proportional to its running time to review.

Carnage really is an exercise in pointlessness. The story of two socially divergent couples who meet at one of their homes to barter a truce following a dustup between their young sons, its core appeal is the mounting tension between the proud, preoccupied adults who’d rather believe the opposite pair are the less capable parents. As a stage play, it sure sounds like a recipe for success, given the right cast and a good script. I’m not a regular theater goer, but it comes off as a reboot of the prototypical comedy of manners. Four people, two male, two female, all archetypes, are forced into a small room together to work out an issue that lays their real personalities bare. It’s not a story that can wisely reach any conceivable resolution without risking sentimentality or contrivance. The nihilism running through the highly wrought dialogue is definitely hammered home by the abrupt ending. Reza’s predetermined moral is so blatant that the story acts only like a pedestal on which it sits, and the play feels like it ends on a deep breath she took after only about an hour of righteous bluster. She comes remarkably close to breaking the rule against didacticism in playwriting, and Polanski and she can’t uproot the screenplay from its stage foundation.

The dialogue cuts and burns, thanks to the performances, but motivation is murky and fickle. How many times are Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz’s couple, the Cowans, shown the door? Why, when the conversation’s grown unbearable and she leaps to her feet ready to go, does Nancy Cowan flop back down again? Because she needs the last word in? Or because she wants to delay returning to her regular life? Waltz’s Alan certainly isn’t the reason they stay. He constantly expresses his desire to leave, and even if he does appear to derive a measure of sadistic glee by lazily sniping at his opponents with his pompous and tactless rebuttals, he’s tired and bored by the easy targets. And he can’t be bothered because his work demands his attention.

In fact, Alan Cowan’s presence is incredibly unfair to the audience and the other players on the screen. He obviously embodies all of Reza’s opinions. Waltz’s performance is entertaining, but his overly smarmy and self-satisfied demeanor exudes the holier-than-thou intellectualism of the story’s condescending writer. Carnage would have been more fun if it were less attuned to Reza’s message. Alan’s whole “god of carnage” spiel comes out of nowhere (at least here in the movie), completely out of character, and reaking of pulpit pounding. His obnoxious pedantry for proper vocabulary and keen ear for connotations in speech are well attributed to his profession as an attorney, but whipping some cad philosophy out of his ass comes across more as Reza stepping onstage to distract us by showing off her talents.

To state it twice, Carnage just can’t escape the dour, mothball feel of desparate modern theatre. The performances, direction, and some aspects of dialogue are commended, but the silly ways in which these people remain confined to the condo and to their ridiculous arguments  will perplex most audiences. Why don’t they just leave?? It’s amusing to watch the shifting allegiances and increasingly aggressive digressions, which get funnier the more petty the topic becomes. But the thrill wears thin, leaving the author with the only option being to stop short and get the hell out before anyone realizes that the third act they paid for isn’t coming. We’re left listening to Reza huff and puff to catch her breath, eyeing her warily after her public outburst, before bemusedly asking her, “Are you done?”

Ah, that was brisk. So, I got some excellent films under my skin now, Gareth Evans’s super stabby The Raid and by coincidence here, Polanski’s Chinatown for the first time. And thank the comets, I finished Rutherfurd’s Ireland. But most importantly, after about 2 effing years of waiting, I was finally able to lie down in the dark and enjoy Ben Wheatley’s holy-shitter Kill List. Definitely an awesome one, though I was distracted by a lot of ambient noise around the apartment, and I think my anticipation, after having grown for y’know, 2 EFFING YEARS, had grown a little too high. I’ll talk about it all later. And watch it again. Because MyAnna Buring and Tyres are in it and they rule.

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