If you’re a parent, Roman Polanski’s “Carnage’’ may seem like 79 brisk, delightful minutes of schadenfreude. Based on Yasmina Reza’s 2008 play “Le Dieu du Carnage’’ (subsequently translated by Christopher Hampton into “God of Carnage’’ and a success on London and Broadway stages), the film covers one late afternoon in the lives of two upscale Brooklyn couples, the Longstreets and the Cowans. Their two young sons have had a playground set-to, and little Cowan has knocked out a few of young Longstreet’s teeth. The parents sit down to discuss the matter in civilized fashion, but civilization, as we and Polanski know, is a thin veneer over self-interest and rage. Let the games begin.
Of course it’s the equivalent of shooting complacent carp in a barrel, and not just because this director is an old hand at putting characters in tight spaces and squeezing them until they pop. (I offer my standard disclaimer here: If Polanski’s past transgressions render “Carnage’’ unwatchable for you, by all means skip the film and this review. All others, proceed with eyes open and consciences on high alert.) Just because a target’s big, though, doesn’t mean you can’t aim at it, and Reza’s vision of sins among the yuppie play-date set is glib but stinging. You may recognize the arrogance and anxieties, the class resentments and domestic bile, from your PTA’s most recent talent night. More likely, they’re as close as the nearest mirror.
The film’s an even four-hander, with awful behavior spread evenly among the characters and spellbinding performances by the quartet of co-leads. The Longstreets, Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope (Jodie Foster), are down-to-earth progressives: He’s a plumbing-supplies salesman, she’s writing a book about Darfur. In the opposite corner are the Cowans, elegant power-mom Veronica (Kate Winslet) and husband Alan (Christoph Waltz), the latter a CrackBerry-wielding lawyer for a dodgy pharmaceutical giant.
The setup is simple and the variations almost mathematically exact: At one point or another, each character is brought to ground by the other three or forms a temporary alliance with one of the others. The two husbands bond with Scotch and cigars over the squishiness of their spouses’ cultural affectations. Michael takes his lumps for the cavalier disposal of his daughter’s hamster. Alan is revealed to be a brute in a bespoke suit. The richies take sides against the less rich, the art-lovers against the boors, the control freaks against the laissez-faires. What’s the point? That we’re all savages, no matter how many art books are piled atop the coffee table.
That’s not particularly profound, and “God of Carnage’’ is hardly a great play. There are far too few reasons for the four to stay in that apartment, and, worse, the final act lacks the killing blow of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,’’ a work whose DNA is inextricably wound around Reza’s dramatic structure. But any version of this play (including the one that just opened at Boston’s Huntington Theatre) depends on its performances, and “Carnage’’ has four that can take your breath away.
It’s no disservice to the other two to say that Waltz and Foster deserve special honors here, or that Foster especially reestablishes her claim as one of our greatest working actors. Penelope could easily be a stick figure - the rigid lefty helicopter mom - but Foster delivers an aria in acting, the character’s empathy gradually melting under small insults and full-on assaults, the cords of her neck tautening until they’re about to snap like mast-stays, her eyes narrowing until all she sees are her grievances. It’s an extremely funny portrayal of an utterly humorless woman, and the playfulness Foster brings to the performance is a gift.
Waltz, for his part, reminds you that his Oscar for “Inglourious Basterds’’ was no fluke. Alan is the only one who understands that nothing good will ever come from the meeting, and the actor gives the character’s sarcastic gibes a sly, truthful spin. Yet he’s also the most monstrously self-absorbed of the four and certainly not honest enough to admit he loves his phone - the constant connection to power it provides - more than any person in the room.
The things we own, that we project our personalities and insecurities onto, take up a fair-size chunk of the psychic space in “Carnage.’’ Alan’s phone, Penelope’s precious Kokoschka book, Michael’s Scotch, Veronica’s designer purse - all desperate talismans. The two children at the center of the struggle are place-holders by comparison, even though this version of the tale opens and closes with silent scenes of the boys in the park, alerting us to the world outside the upper-middle-class wrestling ring.
That world isn’t Brooklyn, really, but a digitally edited sandwich of New York backgrounds and Paris foregrounds. The film was shot on a French soundstage, and some of the dialogue feels similarly displaced, as though the scenario had made it halfway across the Atlantic and gotten becalmed. For better and for worse, this is a stateless movie, and like 2010’s “The Ghost Writer’’ it takes place in Polanski-land, less a location than the limbo to which the director has been exiled by his actions and his inclinations. The film shares with the play a frustrating non-ending - the drama sputters out just when it should be exploding - but here you sense Polanski tiring of his snarling domestic pets and walking away. His career-long message comes almost too easily now: All that makes us human is our inhumanity.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.