Try to imagine a future where the super-rich live in gated, patrolled fortress-communities, completely isolated from the short, brutish lives of the underclass who must toil or die, just a paycheck away from having their life-force literally terminated by the powers that be. No, it’s not America under a Mitt Romney presidency, but the premise of “In Time,” the latest dystopian-future movie from director/screenwriter Andrew Niccol (“Gattaca,” “The Truman Show”).
Niccol’s near-future sci-fi film plays like some sort of mutant Karl Marx/Philip K. Dick hybrid, where the “cost of living” has become a literal concept. People have been genetically modified to never age past 25, but there’s a catch: While your first 25 years are on the house, after that the clock starts ticking. Everyone has a glowing digital time-code imprinted on their forearm, and time is the currency in which you earn and pay for everything — rent, bus fare, a cup of coffee. Run out of time and it’s game over. The rich, meanwhile, have become the undead, with centuries at their disposal.
Justin Timberlake plays an angry young member of the 99 percent who — after watching a loved-one’s clock run out — decides to get payback, using some inherited time to buy his way into a gated community, and kidnapping a wealthy financier’s daughter (Amanda Seyfried) when the cops, led by Cillian Murphy, come to bust him. It’s Patty Hearst all over again, as the rich girl soon comes to sympathize with her righteously proletarian captor and they scramble to take down the system.
There’s much to like here: the surreal way in which Seyfried’s privileged princess looks no younger than her mother and grandmother, or the repeated ticking-clock tension as Timberlake’s stored-time surplus runs down into the single digits. Yet the first 30 minutes of “In Time” are so brilliant and pregnant with possibility that one can’t help but be dismayed when it turns into just another guy-with-a-gun-and-a-girl chase flick. It’s not a bad one of those, but it sure feels like a cop-out (as did “The Adjustment Bureau”). Of course, this too may be some clever strategy, showing how capitalism can absorb all dissent and turn it into just another product. Any director who fails to deliver the classic three-act narrative, though, will see his time in Hollywood running short indeed.
If “In Time” strips the dynamics of capitalism down to their brutal core — time is money — then Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” strips away the veneer of social niceties from adult society to reveal the bared fangs of the playground that lie beneath. “Carnage,” like so many Polanski films — try “Bitter Moon” or “The Pianist” — takes a rather dim view of human nature, although this time with hilarious results.
Based on an acerbic play by Yasmina Reza, “Carnage” starts with an after-school altercation between two teenage boys in a New York City park, where one smashes the other in the face with a stick. The film’s irony comes from the fact that the parents of both boys get together to sort things out in an “adult” way, only to see tempers flare and things get totally out of hand. Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play the sweater-wearing, middle-class, liberal parents of the injured boy (“maimed,” as Foster’s passive-aggressive mom puts it), while Kate Winslet and a truly wicked Christoph Waltz play the suit-wearing lawyer-financier parents of the boy who lashed out.
The action plays out within the confines of one apartment, though the vicious back-and-forth between the cast and the ever-shifting camerawork keep things from getting dull. Polanski also finds great humor in the repeated attempts by one couple to leave: They make it as far as the elevator before things heat up all over again. There’s even a bit of slapstick, as one of the characters explosively loses her lunch at one point.
That’s pretty much what “Carnage” is about: all the repressed bile coming up. What begins as a conversation about parenting winds up an existential conflict about how to view the world. Foster gets the self-righteously shrill liberal perspective, while Waltz smirkingly advances a far more cynical view of humanity. “Morally you should overcome your impulses,” he explains, “but there are times you don’t want to” — a view the film sets out to prove.
Reilly — in his typical Elmer Fudd mode — starts off as a loud-mouthed good bloke before devolving into a boor who boasts of the other kids he beat up as a teen, and you can practically see smoke coming out of Foster’s ears at this point. Winslet’s seemingly more submissive wife starts off as the conciliator before winding up the film snarling, “At least our kid isn’t a wimpy-ass faggot!” All four actors are at career-best levels here.
Reza has commented on how the tone of her play has changed in the hands of different directors, ranging from bleak tragedy to black comedy. Polanski’s version struck me as hilarious, riotously over-the-top, as its characters all say out loud the stuff people usually only think. The screening I attended was literally roaring with laughter, though another critic friend who saw the film reported silence, and absolutely refused to believe there was anything in the least bit funny about it. For a cinematic Rorschach test, you can’t beat “Carnage.”