Roman Polanski's "Carnage," based on the Tony Award-winning play "God of Carnage," by Yasmina Reza, is 79 minutes of yowling, haggling, bloviating, bellowing – even retching. It's like a "Seinfeld" episode of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" How much you like the movie will largely depend on how badly you want to be cooped up in a Brooklyn apartment with four discontented jabberers. Amusing as some of this is, after a while I wanted out.
It begins with a long shot of a playground in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Two 11-year-old boys are tussling when one, Zachary, strikes the other, Ethan, with a stick. The scene then shifts to the apartment where Zachary's parents, Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), have dropped in on Ethan's parents, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly). Discussion of the incident between the boys – two of Ethan's teeth were knocked out – is polite enough at first, with cobbler and coffee on offer, but the decorum soon shatters.
Reza, who collaborated with Polanski on the faithful adaptation (translated from the French by Michael Katims), posits these two couples as symbolic opposites. Penelope is a dyed-in-the-wool bourgeois liberal who champions causes like Darfur; Michael, who sells decorative hardware, is a good-naturedly goofy soul with an overloud voice. In the opposing corner is Alan, a supercilious corporate lawyer who seems epoxied to his cellphone, and Nancy, an investment broker who arrives at the apartment already tightly wound and becomes ever more so. It is she who ends up vomiting all over a coffee-table art book. (I told you this film was symbolic.)
Even before alcohol is introduced into the proceedings, it's clear that things are going to rapidly unravel. Despite their vaguely apologetic stance, the Cowans don't really believe Zachary did anything deliberately wrong; their attempts to reconcile the two boys are halfhearted at best. Penelope, who seems pained by the Cowans' lack of social conscience, spends much of the movie contorting her face into masks of disbelief. Michael, the putative peacemaker, inevitably ends up as combative as everybody else.
Why was this play such a hit? Perhaps my "Seinfeld"/"Virginia Woolf" analogy is why. Audiences can bask in the heat of domestic confrontation à la Edward Albee without having to tax themselves unduly. The sitcom-style dramaturgy makes it all go down easy. And like a sitcom, nothing momentous is ultimately at stake. Reza and Polanski aren't interested in flaying the middle class. At best, these couples are props in a brisk, amusing shoutfest.
"Carnage," which won the Golden Lion for best film at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, has been talked about as a quintessential Polanski movie, perhaps because he has so often made films about sufferers in enclosed spaces (for example, "Knife in the Water," "Repulsion," "The Tenant," "Death and the Maiden," and "The Pianist"). This represents a rather overly literal reading of the play. Although Polanski is a master at creating interior dramas that don't feel stagy, he seems here content to let the yammerers yammer. Some of the actors, especially Waltz, with his insidious bonhomie, and the glacially effective Winslet, are compellingly watchable. They outbalance Reilly and Foster (who seems uncomfortable here not only as a character but as an actress).
But in the end it doesn't much matter who "wins" the contest. Anyway, it's clear from the start that no one will win – no one deserves to win. If this was a quintessential Polanski movie, something malign would reside inside its heart: The sitcom would explode its boundaries. The movie is called "Carnage," but the carnivores on display are toothless. Grade: B- (Rated R for language.)