In scotch veritas. Roman Polanski's play-to-film adaptation Carnage takes four civilized adults, sticks them in an upscale New York City apartment, serves a few rounds of drinks, and awaits the uncomfortable truths. Yes, the liquor and the attendant fireworks come only after a round of apple-pear cobbler, but that's the joke of Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage: a slow disintegration of the thin veneer of social niceties, revealing the human animalism underneath. Like Reza's equally popular Art, God of Carnage isn't as deep as it would have you believe, but both plays are catnip for actors. With their small casts and continuous action, Reza's plays are like exhibition cage matches, and every participant comes out looking hard.
In its filmic version, Carnage frames its central conflict with two nature-film dumbshows involving eleven-year-olds. In a Brooklyn park, boys argue and one assaults the other, before an audience of peers. Swiftly, we're off to the apartment of the injured party, where his parents (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) host the assailant's parents (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz). The four parse some legalese and having, so to speak, agreed to terms, sit for that cobbler and a polite conversation comprising "get to know you" chat and attempted commiseration on child-rearing.
In short order we size up the characters. A pretentious Type A personality, Penelope Longstreet (a pitch-perfect Foster) offers that she's penning a non-fiction book on Darfur, while her path-of-least-resistance husband Michael (Reilly)—who's in the housewares-supply business—has clearly learned that it's easiest to smile and nod. By contrast, high-powered attorney Alan Cowan (Waltz) is a take-charge type, while his wife Nancy (Winslet)—an investment broker—attempts to keep the peace. Naturally, the characters resist conceding any fundamental unhappiness in their lives, existential discomfort in their marriages, or immaturity surpassing that of their children, though evidence of all three gradually escapes in word and deed.
Apart from superficial civility, Reza's prime target is bourgeois hypocrisy, redolent in nearly every gesture packed into the film's compact eighty-minute running time. Penelope is a font of pop-psychology double-speak but seems to view empathy as some kind of trophy (like her out-of-print coffee table book that, when damaged, triggers a freakout). At one point, with no hint of self-awareness, she yells, "Don't you tell me about Africa! I know all about suffering in Africa!" It's a cheap shot on Reza's part, but good for a laugh.
As for Alan, he'll sell out his kid in a New York minute ("Our son is a maniac"), while his amoral mantra in defending a poisonous pharmaceutical company is "Deny, deny, deny." Nancy resents the marital third wheel that is her husband's aggravatingly interruptive cell phone, a.k.a. his "whole life" (another theatrical device, borrowed from David Mamet). Meanwhile, Michael loses his patience with his wife's "touchy-feely" moderation; agreeing about "this ‘caring parent' crap," Alan begins to bond with his fellow man, redrawing the conflict along lines of gender.
Though the themes are obvious, Polanski keeps the pace crisp, the camera aggressively intimate, and the actors on their toes. All four nail their "types": Winslet succumbs to overplaying a bit, but her cast mates hit just the right notes of ego and cravenness to make the characters as credible as they are cretinous. While human nature hasn't changed, our sense of eroding privacy has put us on alert, making Carnage sort of a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in a trendier shade of repression unleashed.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]