With the aptly titled “Carnage,” Roman Polanski stages his version of a caged death match, crowding four of the world’s best fighters –– excuse me: ACTORS! –– into a tiny, enclosed ring, where they ungraciously lash at each other’s throats.
With the aptly titled “Carnage,” Roman Polanski stages his version of a caged death match, crowding four of the world’s best fighters –– excuse me: ACTORS! –– into a tiny, enclosed ring, where they ungraciously lash at each other’s throats with passive-aggressive barbs sharp enough to draw blood –– and laughs.
In many ways, it’s the ultimate experience in voyeurism; sitting behind the fourth wall, anonymously observing the boorish behavior of “civilized” husbands and wives indulging their inner beasts while pretending to be noble by gathering in an upscale Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment to “politely” discuss –– like adults –– a schoolyard fight involving their 11-year-old sons.
We join them as they finish drafting a quasi-confession for the aggressor in the juvenile fisticuffs to sign and date as part of a meticulously detailed detente that would make even Henry Kissinger swell with pride. Ah, if only the pair of neighborly parents could leave it at that. But, no! They have to go one step further, by sitting down to a serving of apple-pear cobbler and espresso that rapidly brews into hostility pitting couple against couple, men against women, and, finally, husband against wife.
No one gets out of this apartment alive, not even an innocent little hamster. And as the fur flies, you can’t help repressing a big ol’ grin, as you delight in the opportunity to watch the likes of Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly have at each other while Polanski unobtrusively referees from the wings.
The actors totally get into it, too. It’s almost like a contest to determine whose Oscar is bigger. And although Reilly is the only member of this esteemed ensemble without one of those coveted gold statuettes, he more than proves he belongs among the elite. In fact, his Michael, a posturing peddler of kitchen accessories, consistently draws the heartiest laughs, fully indulging his inner imp via the irony-laden script penned by Polanski and Yasmina Reza, whose Tony-winning play, “Gods of Carnage,” served as the film’s impetus.
Reilly repeatedly threatens to walk off with the movie, but each time he does, Waltz steps up to thwart him with a performance every bit as shrewd, dangerous and funny as his unforgettable turn in “Inglourious Basterds.” What’s great about Waltz is that he does his skewering with such finesse that you hardly notice that’s he’s subtly thrusting his verbal swords to the hilt.
That’s probably because we’re too busy admiring the pomposity of his character, Alan Cowan, a nattily dressed attorney with a smart phone perpetually glued to his ear. And he makes it abundantly clear that no one, and no parental peace talks, are going to come between him and his Blackberry. That cell is no prop, either. If anything, it’s almost like a character, playing a significant role in one of the funniest scenes after being hostilely tossed into a jug of water.
If there’s a flaw in “Carnage,” it’s that the script doesn’t provide nearly enough venom for Foster, as Michael’s granola-bar wife, Penelope, and Winslet, as Alan’s saucy, if not sauced, spouse, Nancy, to sink their pearly white fangs into. They hold their own, all right, but I really could have done without seeing Nancy barf all over Penny’s priceless art books or watch Penelope throw one too many hissy fits. The women also project far too much pettiness and smug superiority to make their characters ring entirely true.
Yet, you cannot look away for a second, as you begin questioning who the adults are in the aftermath of a playground showdown that seems almost quaint –– a case of boys being boys –– compared to what ensues between the parents. And Polanski allows it all to unfold with tongue firmly planted in cheek, as he and Reza, his fellow Francophile, make astute and telling observations about the passive-aggressive attitudes of Americans who claim to stand for peace but always seem to be waging war. Pretty edgy stuff for a comedy, but if Shakespeare taught us anything, it’s that nothing derives humor more than tragedy, making “Carnage” a treasure trove of vitriolic joy.
CARNAGE (R for language.) Cast includes Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz. Co-written and directed by Roman Polanski. 3.5 stars out of 4.