Far more slight than some of filmmaker Roman Polanski's other recent work, such as 2010's The Ghost Writer or 2002's The Pianist, Carnage is a zingy truffle adapted from Yasmina Reza's play, God of Carnage. It's a quick treat — barely 75 minutes from opening to closing credits — designed to be enjoyed in the moment, but I doubt even Polanski thinks there's much cinematic sustenance here.
The film's premise is that a violent incident between two boys at a Brooklyn playground has brought their parents together for an initially tense but polite meeting in hopes of resolving the situation. Hosting at their well-appointed but still cozy apartment are the ostensibly homey, progressive Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope (Jodie Foster), a housewares dealer and would-be writer, respectively, whose son was struck in the encounter. On the defensive are the ostensibly more severe, conservative Alan (Christoph Waltz), a high-powered lawyer, and Nancy (Kate Winslet), an investment banker, whose son did the striking.
The film opens, after a long-shot glimpse of the altercation, at what's supposed to be the end of the meeting. But a final disagreement in language — was the one boy "armed with" a stick or merely "carrying" one? — and the desire to ease the ensuing tensions bring Alan and Nancy back for a final cup of coffee.
Initially, the passive-aggressive Penelope, who cares so much, as she's eager to illustrate, and the bemused, barely cooperative Alan are at odds, their mutual distaste tamped down by their peacemaker spouses. But, as you might expect given the title, this decorum gradually breaks down and the face-off evolves from a simple clash of parenting styles and class tensions into a wider battle of worldviews — prodding a dynamic that oscillates between animosity and indignation.
Carnage is briskly directed given its constraints — less stagey than it might be as a four-person, one-location piece that plays out in near real time. Polanski varies camera placement and incorporates subtle movement to make good use of the film's confined spaces. The film flows, with its apartment-bound claustrophobia appreciably lighter and less discomfiting than in previous Polanski classics like Repulsion or Rosemary's Baby.
Instead, the focus here, true to the film's stage origins, is on dialogue and acting that is somewhat hammier and more theatrical than most of these performers' norms.
Rather than Polanski's own past work, Carnage is more like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? played for comedy, with veiled insults and bubbling recriminations tossed back and forth for little more than audience titillation. It's a tidy, entertaining comedy of eroding manners, but not much more.
Opening Friday, January 13th