Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s hit play Gods of Carnage is an entertainingly artful, spryly acted and blackly comic skewering of a certain cross-section of the urban upper class. I haven’t seen the play in either its French or English incarnations so I can’t say how the movie compares, but Carnage works just fine all by itself. It’s a little constrained by its stage origins, but it’s a chance to get up close with Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz all working in top form.

The story follows two couples who meet after their sons are involved in a playground incident that leads to violence and a couple of missing teeth. John C. Reilly is Michael, a self-made man who masks his blue collar sensibilities for the sake of his liberal intellectual wife Penelope (Foster), the author of a book on the tragedy in Darfur. Waltz is Alan, a soulless corporate lawyer who is constantly wheeling and dealing on his cell phone while Winslet plays his wife, Nancy, a woman comfortable in her material success who hasn’t quite warmed up to the hands-on nitty-gritty of motherhood. The four of them begin the evening with the idea that the matter can be settled in a civilized, adult manner, but of course the differences between the couples (and especially within them) ultimately lead to playground-level chaos.

It’s an easy irony, but it is one satisfactorily arrived at. The trick is that each character at one point or another is allowed to look both decent and loathsome. For all her good liberal intentions, Foster’s Penelope is kind of a yuppie bitch. Reilly is a clod, but once he throws aside his phony liberalism, he’s actually sympathetic… and yet not. Winslet comes across a little cold and snooty, but she gets one of the rare moments of honest human compassion in the story with her horror over the fate of a hamster. Waltz’s Alan meanwhile is a prick from beginning to end, but there’s a nobility in his honestly. He’s the only character who isn’t pretending to be something he’s not and in a story like this, that practically makes him a hero.

At first, Carnage is a little off-putting because Polanski doesn’t make it at all clear where he expects his audience’s sympathies to lie. It turns out though that they lie with the two boys who are only seen from afar at the opening and closing of the film. The idea is that boys will be boys (an idea at least Waltz’s character and to a lesser extent Reilly seems to get) but it’s the parents we have to watch out for. As the evening devolves and liquor flows and the true natures of the adults leak out, Carnage finally starts to sizzle a little bit. It mines the absurd situation for some real laughs as the moral ground constantly shifts beneath the hapless characters and notions of modern parenting are taken to the woodshed.

Seeing those characters played by a terrific cast alone makes Carnage worth seeing. Foster especially shines by somehow making a humorless character funny. She plays Penelope mostly straight, yet her essential silliness pours through. Reilly’s doofus is not too far removed from many of his characters, but he’s never been played in an environment quite like this while Waltz’s smooth charm is a nice counterpoint to his basically slimy character.

If Carnage doesn’t ultimately feel like a deeply consequential film (some critics have tried to draw weird parallels to Polanski’s legal situation to fill the void), and if it never fully transcends its stage-bound origins, I’m ok with that. I’m glad to have two years of Polanski films in a row and it’s a pleasure seeing him wind his great cast up and letting them go.

★★★½☆ 

4 Responses to “Carnage (2011)”

  1. Polanski’s failure to evince his sympathies does mirror the stage play “The Gods of Carnage” which I managed to see during it’s final months in Manhattan. I liked teh play, but had some reservations, and pretty much feel about it as you feel about the film. I hope to see this latest Polanski later this week and very much appreciate this expert piece.

  2. Yeah, no I didn’t mean to imply that it’s a failure at all. I think it was an intentional choice and ultimately a wise one. It was just for the first 30 minutes or so I was wondering to myself why I was having to spend time with these horrible people. Once the fireworks began, it started to click for me.

  3. (some critics have tried to draw weird parallels to Polanski’s legal situation to fill the void)

    It’s Slate. Not surprised, tbh.

  4. lol. yeah, but Dana Stevens isn’t alone.

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