2 1/2 out of 4 stars
Based on the play "God of Carnage" by Yasmina Reza, "Carnage" marks the first English-language comedy from controversial director Roman Polanski. With the exception of the opening and closing credits, it is set in a New York apartment where two upper middle-class married couples attempt to iron out a playground spat involving their two preteen boys.
A filmmaker most actors would give their eye teeth to work with, Polanski landed what most would consider a dream cast for the movie. Three of the four actors have won four Oscars combined, and all have dedicated followings --which should boost the art-house box-office take a bit -- and each delivers a very good performance. It should be mentioned that "good" in this case can also mean "shrill" and/or "annoying." A performance doesn't have to be pleasant to watch in order to be respected, admired or perhaps enjoyed.
Like the majority of non-musical stage plays adapted for the screen, "Carnage" is top-heavy with rapidly spoken, carefully chosen dialogue and it comes off as, well ... stagey. Watching four people just talk in one room for 86 minutes without a break can be enlightening, but it doesn't usually equate to a great cinematic experience and that is the case here.
If you are an overprotective, easily irritable or litigious-minded parent, you might want to skip "Carnage." The thrust of the plot involves people who, on the surface, want to be polite, reasonable, democratic and accommodating but in reality are inflexible, close-minded, self-serving and autocratic. "Carnage" perfectly encapsulates and skewers the attitude of today's "helicopter" parent mentality.
The film opens with what appears to be the end of a mostly genial meeting between the two couples. Cooking-table book author Penelope (Jodie Foster) and her kitchen hardware salesman husband Michael (John C. Reilly) are the parents of Ethan who was smacked upside the head by Zachary, the son of Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz). It's never made clear what it is Nancy and Alan do for a living but they appear to be better off than Penelope and Michael.
For roughly half of the movie, Alan is talking on his cellphone with a business associate presumably about a big deal that isn't quite going their way. In addition to being rude to Nancy and the other couple, this major breach of cellphone etiquette has the same effect on the audience. Rather than continue with the dialogue, Polanski chooses to make us sit still and wait for Alan as he endlessly drones on about whatever to whomever and we don't care. Doing this once makes the point: Alan is a clueless narcissist. Repeating it over and over kills the organic flow of the narrative.
Another facet of the story that doesn't make much sense is the multiple exits by Nancy and Alan. Like the cellphone thing, it adds nothing to the story and is a colossal irritant. Every time Nancy and Alan leave, Penelope and Michael rope them back into the apartment, first for coffee and cake, another time for scotch and cigars. When the scotch is added to the mix, the volume increases, inhibitions and brevity dissipate, alliances shift and the black humor finally hits full stride. It's not the best third act payoff in history, but it certainly offsets the drain of the first two enough to make the film slightly recommendable.
With the possible exception of Michael, these are people none of us would ever want to know in real life. They are phony, shallow, patronizing and self-absorbed. It speaks highly of the four principals that they were not only able to make us hate them but that they also would want to play such unlikable people. It's a perfect example of what many actors will do in order to work with Polanski.
For all of the back-biting, rambling on and bickering by the adults, it is the mostly dialogue-free opening and closing credit sequences acted out by youngsters that delivers the movie's strongest message. They say more by saying next to nothing in three minutes than the adults do at rapid-speed and full volume in the remaining 86. (Sony Classics)