Wickedly funny and maddeningly claustrophobic, Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” is a sort of pretention-free “No Exit” in which four characters are trapped in a room from which there appears to be no escape.
Actually it’s a nicely-appointed Brooklyn apartment owned by Michael (John C.Reilly) and Penelope (Jodie Foster). Visiting are another couple, Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz).
Nancy and Alan’s 11-year-old son Zachary has ended a playground argument by smashing Michael and Penelope’s son Eliot in the face with a stick. Now the parents are coming together to make amends in a nice, civilized fashion.
Good luck with that.
Almost from the beginning you can tell that this attempt at reconciliation is not going well.
Penelope is a brittle neurotic who says her son was “disfigured” in the fight. She’s big on exaggeration. Nancy goes out of her way to be conciliatory. Her mood darkens, though, after she vomits Penelope’s prized pear cobbler all over a coffee table covered with one-of-a-kind books.
The men, on the other hand, clearly aren’t into this exercise in touchy-feely. Michael wants to talk about how he released his daughter’s pet hamster on New York’s mean streets because he found the tiny rodent too creepy to live with.
Alan is a lawyer representing a pharmaceutical company dealing with a rash of devastating side effects from its latest wonder drug. Every few minutes he must disengage to deal with cell phone calls from his panicked clients.
“Let’s talk about the victims after the stockholders’ meeting,” is his considered advice.
In any case his heart isn’t in the healing process — from his every gesture and expression it’s obvious that Alan considers this whole reconciliation thing a load of crap.
Before it’s over the husbands will be guzzling single malt Scotch and waving about Cuban cigars while their angry wives plow ahead with the healing process.
Based on Yasmina Reza’s play “God of Carnage,” the film is a wonderfully acted black comedy of constantly shifting confrontations and alliances. The recurring joke is that every time Alan and Nancy put on their coats to leave, something happens to pull them back into the conversation.
The idea, of course, is to show just how thin our veneer of civilized behavior really is. That may not be precisely a forehead-smacking revelation, but it makes for a pointedly bad-tempered comedy.
Polanski rejects any notions of “opening up” the play. This is pretty much four characters on a single set, though Pawel Edelman’s photography and Herve de Luze’s editing is wonderfully cinematic.
Of course, with this script and these actors, you don’t need a whole lot more.