Are we civilized adults, or are we wild animals kept in check by a web of rules, both legal and social? That's the heady subject of Yasmina Reza's 2009 Broadway play "God of Carnage," which, to paraphrase MTV's "The Real World," looks at what happens when four wealthy Manhattanites stop being polite and start getting real.
Roman Polanski adapted the play into the new film "Carnage," and although the play isn't quite as successful or penetrating on screen, it works as an entertaining, vicious doubles tennis match between two pairs of terrific actors.
What brings the four characters together is a schoolyard altercation between two 11-year-old boys. One hit the other in the face with a tree branch, and their parents are meeting to try to resolve the matter politely, thoughtfully, civilly.
That doesn't last long. At first, the parents of the injured boy (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) and the parents of the injurer (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) fall over themselves to be solicitous, dealing in soothing 21st-century phrases like "punitive context" and "accountability skills."
But there's an undercurrent of tension there. Eventually, agreements turn to disagreements turn to arguments, and arguments turn into a full-on liquor-fueled war as the couples lash out at each other, and at their partners.
In one corner is Penelope (Foster), a determined do-gooder who believes that in a civilized society, all rough edges can be smoothed away through mediation. At the other is Alan (Waltz), an arrogant attorney who is politely amused at Foster's worldview. In between are Nancy (Winslet) as Waltz's tightly wound second wife, and Reilly as Foster's husband, Michael, whose surface politeness evaporates into a surly crudeness when provoked.
Reza puts plenty of juicy, transgressive lines in the actors' mouths and they make the most of them. Foster's slow boil is fearsome to behold; by the end of the film, she's so enraged that her head looks like a giant, pulsing blood vessel. Reilly and Winslet get their jabs in, but the real winner is Waltz, in his best role since the genial Nazi interrogator of "Inglourious Basterds." He plays the attorney as a rich man willing to humor his inferiors, sitting through the conversation with the affable boredom of a land developer at a public hearing, listening to complaints while knowing he's got the votes.
Like the play, the film is largely confined to that one apartment. But I don't think "Carnage" would have benefited from being opened up and using additional locations to make it seem more cinematic. This is a fight, a struggle of wills, and it plays better to keep the action confined to the ring. Polanski's camera shifts around the combatants like a referee.
What hurts the film more is that Reza draws her characters as such clearly identifiable types, especially Foster as the touchy-feely liberal and Waltz as the amoral capitalist. Their outsized personalities might have worked better in the theater, but film is more intimate, and the thick black lines the characters are drawn with are obvious up close.
Still, this is an entertaining, mean-spirited comedy of manners, about manners, and whether there is some moral code binding us all together, or if it's every person for herself. The coda that Polanski adds to the film suggests that adults should forget civility or common purpose and play by schoolyard rules, where conflicts are worked out openly, and yesterday's enemy could be tomorrow's best friend.
As Reilly's character puts it: "We're born alone. We die alone. That's it. Now who wants a little Scotch?"