Maestro of menace Roman Polanski and four fine actors can’t reap sizzling satire from a slight idea in “Carnage,” a verbal slugfest based around the observation that upscale, sophisticated adults can behave more childishly than their squabbling kids. But they dramatize the urban truism vividly and entertainingly.
The source material is Yasmina Reza’s hit play “God of Carnage,” which ran in Europe and on Broadway prior to this Brooklyn-set adaptation, scripted by Polanski and Reza.
Bookend passages aside, Polanski hasn’t opened up the play. But he’s given it his stamp.
Echoing, albeit comically and thinly, his “apartment” thrillers (“Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Tenant”), the movie confines seemingly civil people in domestic spaces and strips away politeness to reveal sinister essences.
The real-time action consists of two privileged couples meeting to discuss a playground altercation involving their sons. The Longstreets — social-issues writer Penelope (Jodie Foster) and housewares wholesaler Michael (John C. Reilly) – are receiving the Cowans — high-powered lawyer Alan (Christoph Waltz) and investment broker Nancy (Kate Winslet) — into their pleasantly decorated apartment.
Eleven-year-old Ethan Longstreet lost two teeth when same-age Zachary Cowan smacked him with a stick.
Initially, cordiality prevails among these self-described “decent” people. The Longstreets amenably change “armed with a stick” to “carrying a stick” in the incident report. Penelope serves cobbler.
Soon, however, sensibility differences between the corporate-world Cowans and the more bohemian Longstreets surface, as do antagonisms between genders. Insults begin.
Zachary lacks “accountability” skills, Penelope remarks. Nancy finds it appalling that Michael has released a pet hamster onto the streets. High-strung Penelope, flaunting her social conscience, clashes with rude, amoral Alan, who repeatedly abandons the others to discuss his pharmaceutical-giant client on his cellphone.
Affable Michael and polite Nancy reveal buried hostilities after scotch is poured. Vomiting occurs.
True, this movie suggests an inferior “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” and the scenario of two just-acquainted couples getting plastered and horrid in a mere 80 minutes doesn’t really fly. There is also the matter of why the Cowans can’t get beyond the elevator when attempting to leave. “Don’t go back into the apartment!” you want to shout.
But Polanski has long specialized in creating unsettling and constricting atmospheres and presenting humankind, beneath veneers of civility, as a pretty base deal, and he’s adeptly on that track here. He’s also having fun. That’s enough to equal a compelling dollop of domestic claustrophobia and a feisty comedy of horror.
And an actors’ showcase. Winslet, Reilly and Foster (whose tense Penelope seems made for a Polanski close-up) are first-rate, and Waltz, who gives Alan a reptilian tinge, is extraordinary.
An ironic coda ends things sprightly. You leave the theater unenlightened but amused.
Starring Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet
Written by Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski
Directed by Roman Polanski
Running time 1 hour 20 minutes