© 2012 Ray Wong
What a strange concept, to watch four characters bickering in an apartment for 80 minutes. But that's exactly what director Roman Polanski has made us do, and the four master actors pull it off beautifully.
Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) and her hardware-store owner husband Michael (John C. Reilly) have a meeting with Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) at their apartment to discuss an incident that happened between their respective sons. Apparently the Cowans's son acted aggressively with a stick toward the Longstreets's.
At first civilized and cordial, the Cowans admit their son's wrongdoing and agree to pay for any medical bills. Despite the tension simmering below the surface, the Longstreets invite the Cowans to stay to have some apple-pear cobblers. Big mistake. What was once an amiable meeting between two sets of concerned parents slowly descends into chaos when their differences in parenting philosophies and practices turn sharply into personal attacks over politics, marriages, and personalities.
Jodie Foster (The Beaver) plays a tightly-wound, liberal, Africa-loving control-freak, and she does such a great job that we wonder if Foster is playing herself. Penelope's tense personality is evident from the very first scene, but you can tell that she has everything under control, much like the rest of her life. It's great to see Foster's character unravel around the seams until she completely falls apart. Meanwhile, her husband is played skillfully by the often spot-on John C. Reilly (Cedar Rapids). Reilly is excellent as the diplomatic putz, and he makes us wonder how did the two of them meet and stay together for so long.
Kate Winslet (The Reader) plays Nancy, a complete opposite of Penelope. She is a "fake" with no real aspiration or conviction. She cares more about her appearance, pleasing her husband and the well-being of a pet hamster than her son's behavior. She's pretty much in denial with everything. Meanwhile, her husband Alan is deliciously played by Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds), a selfish prick of a lawyer who seems to actually enjoy the fact that his son is a maniac.
These four outstanding actors get to play off of each other and showcase their collective talent (and award-winning skills). It's not easy to pull of 80 minutes of dialogue without some serious talent, and the actors graciously pull it off. Even then, while Foster and Winslet are over the top and Reilly is quietly off-putting, the standout is Waltz. His characterization and performance are so well-tuned and precise it's really hard to imagine Alan Cowan any other way.
Adapted from her own play, Yasmina Reza (Art) has made certain changes to make the dialogue and action more accessible on the big screen. While the situations can seem a bit contrived (I could do without the whole subplot with the vomit), the most important thing here is the dialogue. Often what's being said does not match the action, and then there are times when what's being said reveals so much about the characters. The sharp dialogue is the soul of the whole piece, while the actors bring the heart to it.
That being said, somehow I wonder about the point of the whole story. Is it about how people are vicious animals underneath the facade of civilized behaviors? Is it about relationships and how people pretend and hide and bury feelings just to keep the peace, until a confrontational situation (with the aid of alcohol, perhaps) brings everything to the surface? I'm not sure. After watching the movie, I'm still not sure.
Polanski's (The Ghost Writer) direction is smooth and arresting. His use of camera angles, mirrors and lighting is interesting since the whole story happens in such a confined space. The pacing is good, and he lets the actor do their thing. He uses enough movements and camerawork and close-ups to distract us from realizing that we're basically watching a play.
While the movie is hugely amusing and fascinating, I'm neither touched or educated. It seems that the story is an exercise of intelligence and cleverness and, perhaps, a keen study of human relationships and behaviors. Still, at the end of the day, I am not affected in any way. I never felt the carnage.
Stars: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Yasmina Reza, Romand Polanski (based on play by Reza)
Distributor: Sony Classics
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 79 minutes
Script - 8
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 7
Production - 7
Total - 7.5 out of 10.0