Adapted from “God of Carnage,” French playwright Yasmina Reza’s recent Tony-winning stage comedy, the movie will have its premiere Friday night as the opener at the 49th annual New York Film Festival in Manhattan. (Sony Pictures Classics releases “Carnage” in theaters on Dec. 16.)
Last year, the festival memorably kicked off with the premiere of “The Social Network,” which went on to win three Oscars (it had eight nominations) and gross $225 million worldwide. “Carnage” is no “Social Network,” lacking the latter film’s ambition and depth.
Rather, this is a drawing room comedy of ill manners, an 80-minute, claustrophobic look at how quickly the veneer of civilization peels off when a conflict between two affluent couples escalates.
Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) have come calling on Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), at the Longstreets’s comfy apartment in Brooklyn. The reason for the meeting: The Cowans’ son whacked the Longstreets’ boy with a stick at a neighborhood playground, causing dental damage.
Nancy and Alan are a moneyed couple; she works in finance and he is a high-priced corporate lawyer who’s constantly taking calls on his Blackberry. Penny and Michael, while comfortable, clearly aren’t in the same elevatd tax bracket. Penny is a liberal activist and part-time writer and Michael is a wholesaler for plumbing fixtures and house wares.
Soon, relations between the couples and, eventually, spouses grow tense and nasty. Everyone starts to behave badly (puking, drinking too much, throwing objects, etc.) and to verbally eviscerate one another. Grownup life, it would seem, is just a larger, nastier version of the playground.
All of which is amusing to watch but ends up meaning very little. “Carnage’s” laughs come from the vicarious thrill of watching people voice what most of us have, at some time, wanted to say but were too polite or cowed to do so.
Essentially, this is a lightweight version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” lacking the true bite and emotional undertow of Edward Albee’s classic drama.
What “Carnage” does have going for it is a prestige cast–only Reilly is sans an Oscar, though he was nominated for “Chicago”–whose members clearly relish the chance to cut loose and caterwaul.
Waltz is the standout, turning every line reading into a sharply cut, glittering gem of smug swagger. Winslet comes apart at her smartly tailored seams with élan and Reilly does a fun job of revealing the streetfighting boor beneath his character’s schlumpy persona.
The weak link here is Foster; in a go-for-broke performance, she miscalculates and overdoes her character’s intensity. On stage, her role — for which Marcia Gay Harden won a Tony as Best Actress — was a hilarious tour de force, a tornado of mounting passive-aggressive rage. On screen, confined to a limited set and often shot in close-up, Foster’s character just seems strained and irritating.
It’s easy to see why Polanski was attracted to Reza’s work, playing as it does into themes he has been investigating for much of his career: that nothing is as it seems and we’re all really just primitives underneath. But the director (he and Reza cowrote the screenplay) brings nothing special to the material, no undertone of chill menace or threat of the unknown.
Rather, his “Carnage” is like an extended, fancy dress episode of TV’s “The Honeymooners,” but with bigger words, more mayhem and way less the heart.