Cartoonish characters can’t create true carnage

The paper-thin characters in Roman Polanski’s new film means this satire of middle-class mores quickly loses its bite.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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The middle classes have always been ripe for ridicule. From Mark Twain to Sinclair Lewis, countless artists have mocked the haughtiness and vacuity of the bourgeoisie and, in doing so, produced some indispensable pieces of social commentary. Adapted from Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play, Roman Polanski’s latest film, Carnage, proves that the middling class are as laughable as ever. But, ultimately, this supposed satire of two well-to-do Brooklyn couples amounts to little more than a handful of cheap gags.

Following a playground argument, 11-year-old Zachary Cowan hits his schoolmate, Ethan Longstreet, in the face with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth. Michael (John C Reilly) and Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) invite Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet) to their apartment to settle the disagreement between their children, and help draft a letter to their health insurance company, detailing the attack. But what begins in the spirit of civility soon descends into, well, carnage.

The film opens with the four characters going over the wording of the letter, and other than slight disagreement over the phrase ‘armed with a stick’ – which is quickly changed to the less suggestive ‘carrying a stick’ – everything seems dandy. Within the first five minutes the Cowans are already putting on their coats to leave until, realising he hasn’t offered them a cup of coffee, Michael insists they stay a while longer.

In the early scenes, the couples engage in guarded small-talk, each side suspicious that the other is judging them. The women discuss their hackneyed theories about parenting while the blokes talk business, exchanging barbed remarks about each other’s professions. Their unbridled need to outdo one another is played upon brilliantly, but this fails to go any further than a few funny, but obvious, jibes at middle-class pomposity.

Indeed, we are presented with little more than four bourgeois caricatures. There’s Penelope, the over-educated, luvvie mother; Nancy, the air-headed trophy wife; Alan, the detached, workaholic father; and Michael, the self-made man with a chip on his shoulder. The cast do their best with the material but, barely half an hour in, the film can find nowhere else to go with these four cartoonish characters.

Although only 80 minutes long, a series of increasingly ridiculous events are needed to drag Carnage kicking and screaming to feature-length. Tensions run high and the couples begin to turn on each other. Michael and Alan reveal their cynical disdain for their wives’ sense of moral superiority and they all enter into a debate about human nature, in which they take turns making bathetic pseudo-philosophical speeches. Alan outlines his nihilistic belief in ‘The God of Carnage’, and this malevolent deity seems to descend on the scene. Before long they are questioning their marriages, turning to alcohol and declaring that this is the worst day of their lives.

The frayed and absurd ending is undeniably the most engrossing scene in the film, but it nevertheless feels like a last-ditch attempt at profundity and insight. We leave the characters paralysed in a state of existential angst, staring blankly at each other, unsure how this simple meeting has caused them to question themselves so deeply. Unfortunately, this is the feeling the audience is left with as well.

At its best, social satire can stage a joyous onslaught on a culture’s closest-held values, inviting us to laugh at our own pretensions and leaving us with plenty to think about. Carnage, on the other hand, is little more than a cautionary tale about how quickly a film can unravel when its characters are paper-thin.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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