In Hollywood terms, "Carnage" is relatively tame violence-wise. A pet hamster may be in peril, a bunch of tulips get mauled and a cell phone gets abused, but that's pretty much it. There's more actual carnage in "Puss in Boots."
But if you're into sheer domestic savagery, this is the film for you. Based on the 2009 Tony Award winning play "God of Carnage" by Yasmina Reza and directed by Roman Polanski, the film is a dark comedy that focuses on the collapse of good manners when two liberal, upper middle-class couples get together to discuss an altercation between their young sons.
Starring a first-rate cast of Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly, it may be uncomfortable stuff for yuppies to watch: A polite discussion of childrearing descends into racial slurs, drunken insults, the airing of dirty personal laundry and some barfing.
"There's no reason to lose our cool here," says Foster's character, an uptight altruistic, artistically inclined woman, who, despite her nervous, thin smile, does precisely that.
To fans of the play, relax. Polanski and Reza, who share screenwriting credits, have added no flashbacks or car chases or explosions to what on stage has always been a four-character talk-fest — sometimes a scream-fest — that unspools in an apartment in real time. In fact, the movie hews so closely to the play that it sometimes feels like a filmed play.
One major difference is the act that brings these two couples together: The opening shot is of an 11-year-old boy smacking another 11-year-old boy with a stick in a Brooklyn park, dislodging some teeth and prompting swelling. In the play, the assault is only alluded to.
Did we say "assault"? Whoops. That's precisely the discussion at hand when we first meet the Longstreets — Penelope (Foster) and Michael (Reilly) — and the Cowans — Alan (Waltz) and Nancy (Winslet). The Cowans' boy has hit the Longstreet's kid and both couples are meeting in the Longstreet's tasteful apartment to discuss the implications over cobbler and coffee.
Penelope Longstreet thinks it was indeed an "assault" that left her son "disfigured" and wants an apology — from the boy and his parents. The Cowans resent the implication: It was just horsing around, and their son is no thug. In fact, maybe the whole problem is that the Longstreet's boy is a "snitch." Whoops, again.
Before you know it, both sides are sliding into madness, unmasked as hardly civilized. Michael Longstreet, who we meet as a cheerful wholesaler of pots and pans, is revealed to be a ball of resentment. His wife is exposed as a shrewish fraud. Alan Cowan, a crude, self-absorbed lawyer with a cell phone permanently attached to his ear, is nothing but a world-hating nihilist, and his pearl necklace-wearing mousy investment banker wife is riven with simmering hatred.
The four circle each other — sometimes the two wives gang up on the boys, sometimes vice versa — as a circumspect discussion of their parenting skills (or as one calls it "accountability skills") lead to a prickly discussion of their world views, all lubricated by Scotch. It's a play in which a seemingly innocuous line — like, "That's a funny line of work" or "Maybe your son is picking up on a lack of interest" — can produce lightning bolts of hatred.
"Doing the right thing is futile!" screams Penelope Longstreet in exasperation.
They're acting like children — and that's the point, really. The four actors are tremendous at hiding their characters' real feelings and yet also trying to suppress the rush of blood to their heads. Waltz, in particular, has his annoying-arrogant phone skills down pat: Listening to him conduct a loud conversation as he shoves cobbler in his face while everyone silently and painfully waits for him to hang up will make you want to smack him with a two-by-four.
And that's also the point, really.
The film may have been shot outside Paris, but it recreates an upper-class New York world marvelously. Production designer Dean Tavoularis has clearly spent a lot of time in overstuffed, show-offy Brooklyn apartments, where knickknacks are displayed to prove how interesting the occupants are, and art books sit as a testament to their owners' intelligence. Many of the items in the apartment appear angular, as if messy emotions could be squared away.
What's so frightening is how universal this plot is. The play — French playwright Reza is also known for her play "Art" — opened in Zurich in 2006 and then Paris a few years later. It became a hit in London and then made it to Broadway with a cast that featured James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis. All the actors were nominated for Tonys in 2009 and Harden took home the best actress prize and director Matthew Warchus won the directing Tony.
This new film's cast — three Academy Award winners and one Oscar nominee — have risen to the challenge — and teased out more of the humor than the Broadway production. In the film, the drunken zaniness at the end is emphasized, while the real threat of a four-way fistfight hung over the play.
Gandolfini's brutishness — with its menacing hint of violence — is somewhat missed, but Reilly channels his inner sad-sack to great effect. Foster and Winslet prove eminently worthy, but really the material is the best thing here. A nasty spat between two couples over the course of an evening may not sound like a fun flick, but like any act of carnage, it's hard to turn away.
"I've behaved poorly," Penelope Longstreet says at one point.
She has. They all have. Quite wonderfully.
The Sony Pictures Classics release is rated R for language. Running time: 80 minutes.