Greetings again from the darkness. Four strong actors in one upper crust Manhattan condo for 79 minutes is a good first step. A script adapted by the director Roman Polanski and the original playwright Yasmina Reza makes for a strong second step. So why isn’t this film more effective? The belief here is that this one simply works better as a play. That’s not to say the dialogue and flow aren’t impressive, it’s just that as a viewer, we are distracted by the look and feel of a play being presented on screen rather than live on stage.
The story opens with four well-groomed adults huddled around a computer putting the finishing touches on a joint statement regarding a playground incident between their two 11 year old sons. The Longstreet’s (Jodie Foster, John C Reilly) son ended up getting whacked in the face with a stick by the Cowan’s (Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz) son. We witness the incident from a distance over the opening credits, totally oblivious to the spoken words from the boys involved.
After one minor compromise on wording, the statement is complete and the Cowan’s move to make a graceful exit from the Longstreet’s home. Instead, we get the first of four or five “almost” escapes as one after another particularly irksome claim or accusation is made by one of the participants, and the war of words moves back inside. The genius of the story comes from watching the gradual dismantling of social graces as these four people work through the full spectrum of human emotions related to, not just their son’s actions, but also the words and actions of each other. Think of it as an updated yuppie version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
We see homemade cobbler transition to coffee and finally to whiskey. Each change coincides with personality changes and a constant shifting of alliances within the group. These are four normally civilized people play-acting like this emotional topic can be handled without emotion. One particular occurrence is quite off-putting for both the viewer and our on screen party of four. It creates quite a mess on the coffee table, and immediately intensifies the level of apologizing and philosophizing.
There are at least three interesting social commentaries being made here. First, parents tend to defend their own children no matter the situation. Second, today’s parents mistakenly believe that 11 year olds should behave like mature adults. They have forgotten that social and coping skills are learned through playground disputes. Third, no matter how educated or well-mannered we show on the outside, we all have the need and desire to be respected and deemed correct in our judgments.
You may not learn a great deal from this one, but I bet you find yourself paying particular attention to your own debate strategy the next time you are in a social environment. It is certainly a treat to watch four standout actors having such a good time with words.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see adults arguing like teenagers while pretending to be acting like adults.
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a harsh dose of human nature is not why you head to the movies.
watch the trailer: