A QUARTET of nasty bourgeois, played by four top-drawer actors with crack timing, make Roman Polanski's Carnage (showtimes here) a civilized entertainment. Based on Parisian author Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage, the film is about an after-school mediation session that goes bad.
In the prologue, in the distance, one bad little boy hits another bad little boy in the head with a tree branch. Aside from that scene, we never leave the living room and kitchen of a couple in the high-rent part of Brooklyn. They possess all the trimmings: coffee-table books, African artifacts and a vase full of out-of-season tulips.
The man of the house, Michael, is a gregarious but lumpy executive at a household hardware company; he's played by a lively John C. Reilly, who here has the shape, heartiness and accent of Fred Flintstone. Meet his wife, Penelope (Jodie Foster), whose upcoming book about Darfur makes her particularly ready to forgive and forget playground violence. The father of the offscreen bullying boy is Alan (Christoph Waltz), a snide lawyer.
In the aftermath of the rounds of apologies, acceptances and coffee drinking, Alan's phone starts ringing ceaselessly. The sound heralds the renewed aggression to come. He turns out to be one of those dolts who presumes that the world is his phone booth.
If the out-of-control games of Get the Guests that ensue remind one of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, certainly Alan's wife, Annette (Kate Winslet), is the group's Honey—with a bit of brass to the gold hair and more than a touch of incapacitating nausea.
Three of the four having at each other are evenly matched. Waltz, who reminds one of Jason Robards during that actors' best days, knows how to inject a word with poison, or how to smile like a cobra. Foster satirizes the kind of do-gooder she probably encounters a dozen times a day—many of those times in the mirror.
It's wisdom and an actor's sense of self-preservation to parody their persona, but you can see the strain in Foster. Janet McTeer, who played the Honey role in one of the many stage productions, might have been closer to perfection: someone bigger, a human auger, a guilt-whipper.
Interestingly for a play written by a female playwright, the tale seems to have more sympathy to the two men. They turn the sofa into their own personal man-cave once the single-malt gets broken out. And they're in good spirits, compared to the ailing moaners they married.
The strange thing is that the more Carnage flaunts the idea that man is a wolf to man, the cozier it finally gets. Reza's play is uneasily translated into New Yorkese, with the mannerisms and reactions off about 10 degrees.
A play doesn't take the world by storm these days unless it's essentially safe entertainment. Carnage is made for audiences of married people who know what it's like to live with someone who can look like a ninny or a hog in social situations.
In the film's attack on "nice" people, I'm reminded of Orwell's description of Charles Dickens as a man beating the conservative elephant with a cane, and the beast feeling it as a delightful tickling. In this case, it's the weepy liberal getting thwacked.
Being 78, and having seen what he's seen, Polanski is likely sharing every old man's feelings that the struggle against injustice is doomed. But is Penelope such a phony? Those who are trying to rescue Africa aren't opposed by some evil deity; it's not some gory Kronos who put AK-47s into the hands of 8-year-olds.
Something in Carnage's argument bypasses the real story of post-colonial Africa, of what got stolen or sold off. And in laughing at all that, it's as if you were complicit in making a man a beggar—and then you mocked him for his filth, his poverty and the bloodiness of his life.