A common complaint lodged against films adapted from plays is that they never unloose from the staginess of their origins. But in Carnage, adapted by Yasmina Reza and director Roman Polanski from Reza's hit play God of Carnage, that essential confinement and airlessness is temperamentally on point: Seventy-nine minutes spent with its faux-polite but distinctly fanged Brooklynite parents will have you climbing the walls, so to speak, that constrict the four leads.
In Brooklyn Bridge Park, one boy grabs a stick and takes a mighty whack at the other. Polanski – or more likely his second-unit director as the bulk of the film was shot in Paris – frames this inciting incident in a dialogue-free long shot, with an impartiality infeasible for the parents of the bully and his bullied. Indeed, the whole of the film is about what happens when the mothers and fathers meet to discuss the fight only to pick up the metaphorical weapons themselves.
Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play Penelope and Michael Longstreet, the parents of the victimized Ethan, who invite Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), the parents of Ethan's aggressor, over for coffee and conciliation. (Neither Reza nor Polanski is a native English speaker, but they share an ear for the bafflegab of helicoptering parents.) Despite efforts to keep cool – Winslet and Reilly play the peacemakers of their respective couples – soon enough the politesse gets discarded like used coffee grounds and the Longstreets’ well-appointed living room becomes a sort of theatre of war.
Carnage, all told, is a slight work, and the filmmakers' obvious disdain for the characters – a caricature klatch of closet conservatives, alpha-male boosters, bleeding-heart liberals, et al. – grows wearisome in the film's last stretch, especially as the actors are encouraged to oversell their increasing inebriation. Still, the script is chockablock with al dente amusements – obvious targets still make for wickedly funny one-liners – and the German actor Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) is terrific as the only parent unburdened by decorum. The scenery may be thin, but Waltz chews it with wolfish abandon.