In Roman Polanski's Carnage, a childhood playground fight exposes the puerile natures of all four concerned parents, who meet at the so-called victim's home to resolve the dispute in a so-called civilized manner.
Though the pretense of civility dissolves about five minutes in, the action stays trapped inside the Brooklyn (Cobble Hill?) apartment for the remaining 80.
The two couples are shallowly sketched archetypes of self-satisfied urban privilege: 'Regular guy' Michael (John C. Reilly) and his shrill, pseudo-bleeding heart wife Penelope (Jodi Foster) are pitted against the presumably wealthier and more conservative Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz), whose son Zachary attacked Michael and Penelope's son with a stick. The playground altercation resulted in a swollen lip, broken teeth and possible nerve damage (it's too soon to tell, says Penelope).
Polanski adapted Carnage with writer Yasmina Reza from her Broadway play, God of Carnage. The screenwriters were faithful to the source material to a fault: While Polanski works some magic with angles and scale, a viewer can't help but ask why they bothered to make a movie at all.
Cinematic adaptations of staged material only work when the filmmakers take advantage of the mobility the format affords. For the sake of protracted metaphor, Polanski imprisons his audience along with his characters in Penelope and Michael's well-appointed apartment, with its teasing view of an elevated subway train and absurd liberal bourgeois posturing (ie. The requisite tribal art and Francis Bacon coffee table book).
There is nothing gained for keeping the rest of the universe at a distance: We know almost instantaneously that these couples are anything but citizens of the world, as Penelope laughably suggests. Why not let us meet the boys, if only briefly? (We presumably see them in the opening and closing shots, but at such a great distance that the footage is almost meaningless).What would be the harm in glimpsing Nancy and Alan's world, or a bit of either relationship's backstory?
The absence of texture contributes to a tone of general implausibility. It's difficult to imagine that people like this could really exist at all, never mind in the increasingly farcical narrative that hinges on Nancy and Alan repeatedly leaving and re-entering the combat zone against all reason. We are expected to believe that one couple would divulge an earlier marital spat before inviting the other to address them by their first names, and that one character could go from sober (and vomiting) to falling down drunk in a span of ten minutes.
It's natural to suspend one's disbelief in a live theatre setting, but under Polanski's normally unimpeachable direction, these overlooked details feel lazy at best, insulting at worst.
Foster and Winslet, in particular, overproject as if to rouse a dozing discount ticketholder in the back row. Even Winslet's makeup seems better suited for stage than screen, and the camera has never been so unkind to either marvelous actress (who were both nominated for Golden Globes).
All of the characters share an inclination toward flat, self-indulgent hyperbole: At one time or another, three of the four declare the day -- spent consuming cobbler and imported single-malt scotch -- to be the worst or unhappiest of their lives.
Foster carries the burden of playing the most unlikeable character, one who is drawn without a sliver of wit or nuance. At one point she announces that she doesn't want a sense of humor; too often, the film itself seems to announce the same thing.