Two couples slowly let their civility fall away as they discuss a playground fight between their pre-teen sons in Carnage, an adaptation of a play that doesn’t feel so far from the stage.
We see the confrontation, which ends with one boy hitting another with a stick, in the movie’s opening credits but we are far enough away from events that we can’t be quite sure what happened or who is really to blame. Then we go to the New York apartment of the parents of Ethan, the boy who was hit — mother Penelope (Jodie Foster) and father Michael (John C. Reilly). They are joined by the parents of Zach, the boy with the stick — father Alan (Christoph Waltz) and mother Nancy (Kate Winslet). Zach’s parents are apologetic; Ethan’s parents are appreciative of the meeting. Everyone is uneasy pleasantries as Zach’s parents move to the door and nearly into the elevator. But then the question of a Zach-to-Ethan apology comes up. Fine, we’ll bring Zach over to apologize, Nancy and Alan say, we’ll make him apologize. But if you make him apologize, will it really mean anything to him, asks Penelope, will he understand that he’s disfigured a classmate? And then there’s question of whether knocking out two teeth and a few bruises is really a disfigurement, whether or not it matters if Zach wants to apologize, and then Zach’s parents are back in Ethan’s parents’ living room, eating leftover cobbler and drinking coffee and talking some more.
To some extent, this is a movie where nothing happens. The parents talk more, bicker with each other, bicker within each couple. Michael and Alan both look back fondly on their own boyhood fights. Penelope irritates everyone with her stiff-necked liberalness. Nancy vomits, which is definitely caused by/not at all the result of the cobbler (another point of contention between the couples).
Then the drinking starts.
Carnage is tonier (and not quite as smart) but still funny in the same there-but-for-the-grace way that Curb Your Enthusiasm is funny. Yes, it’s mannered and exceptionally pleased with itself. But it also does offer a few moments of sharp mockery. Here, everybody is sort of horrible and insufferable — but of course, if you take a step back and look at a situation honestly, who among us hasn’t been horrible and insufferable, sometimes on purpose? Sometimes for fun.
And fun is being had here, especially by Winslet and Foster. They seem to enjoy their characters’ unforgiving natures. Waltz and Reilly aren’t having a bad time either. Waltz has shown himself in other roles to be very skilled at playing big evil. Here, he plays a man who is less evil and more jerk. He is only moderately interested in the proceedings unfolding in front of him. Alan, a lawyer, pays most of his attention to a series of increasingly desperate phone calls regarding his pharmaceutical company client and the client’s problems with a drug. His increasingly mercenary advice is, to Penelope and Michael, further example of his heartlessness (and his son’s capacity for violence). To Nancy, it’s just another example of how Alan has checked out of their home life.
Carnage isn’t a laugh riot, but it is a gleefully witty example of civilized people behaving badly. B-
Rated R for language. Directed by Roman Polanski with a screenplay by Polanski and Yasmina Reza (from a play by Reza), Carnage is an hour and 19 minutes long and distributed by Sony Classics.