Carnage, Roman Polanski’s tart but inconsequential adaptation of Yazmina Reza’s hit play God of Carnage, is about what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real. Michael and Penelope (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) are the parents of an 11- year-old boy who got hit by a stick during a fight in the park and lost two teeth. They invite Alan and Nancy (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), the parents of the other boy, to their Brooklyn apartment to figure out how to handle the situation. At first, everyone is civil and polite. Gradually, though, baser human instincts start to poke through. Then the alcohol comes out.
But the resulting carnage isn’t any worse than the aftermath of a heated game of rock-paper-scissors. The entire point of Carnage is to poke fun at the fragile civility of the upper-middle class — they’re all animals inside! — but how much more fun would this material have been if the story hadn’t been about polite white people? Folding neatly into Polanski’s longstanding fascination with movies set inside one location (The Tenant, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby), Carnage never leaves the apartment. This time, though, the constraint makes the film feel stifling. At first, you’re reveling in the subtle swipes everyone is taking at each other, like the way Foster uses words such as “brutalized” and “disfigured” to describe the fight, which cause Waltz to seethe with annoyance.
Each of the actors is playing a “type” which is fun to watch for a while. Foster is the worst sort of bleeding-heart liberal, the kind who reminds you know she’s writing a book about the Darfur massacres every chance she gets. Reilly is a salesman whose pleasant, jovial demeanor conceals a hateful brute beaten down into remission by domesticity.
Waltz is a smug corporate lawyer who can’t hide the condescending look in his eyes when he talks to other people. Winslet is a Fifth Avenue jetsetter constantly trying to forget the personal and moral compromises she’s made for the sake of status and wealth.
None of these things are made literal in the movie: Carnage is a study of how people can’t help but be themselves, even in a situation where everyone is trying their hardest to put their best self forward. The movie is fine as a showcase for acting. Only Foster, whose performances always suffer when she doesn’t believe in the character she’s playing, comes off shrill and artificial. Waltz does some delicious things with his role of a man who can barely suppress his disdain. Reilly initially seems out of place, until the booze starts to flow and his inner lout is unleashed. Winslet, who continues to prove she may be the best actress in movies today, has an unfair advantage over everyone else, because she gets to projectile vomit.
That scene, surprising (and revolting) as it is, only makes you wonder how much better Carnage must have been on the stage. On film, despite Polanski’s meticulous attention to detail, it’s all rather stifling. After awhile, all the shifting alliances and sudden betrayals, while interesting on an intellectual level, begin to feel false and manipulative. You become too aware of the writing and lose sight of the characters when the Virginia Woolf-tirades take over. What this movie needed was the sort of merciless savagery Neil LaBute used to bring to his films. When Carnage reaches its underwhelming climax, you’re not exactly disappointed. But you’re also left thinking: “Is that all there is?”
Cast: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet.
Director: Roman Polanski.
Screenwriter: Yazmina Reza, Roman Polanski. Based on the play “God of Carnage.”
Producer: Said Ben Said.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 80 minutes. Vulgar language. Opens Friday Jan. 13 in Miami-Dade: South Beach, Sunset Place, Aventura; in Broward: Paradise; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray, Palace.