Carnage

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“Carnage” is the sort of slight, tossed-off film that would go completely unnoticed if it weren’t for its pedigree. The stars are Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and John C. Reilly, and the director is Roman Polanski. Between them there are five Oscars, another ten nominations, and several tons of newsprint. You’d expect a collaboration of this magnitude to be something special. You probably would not expect an 80-minute satiric comedy that almost certainly worked better as a stage play than as a movie. Like I said, you’d overlook the movie entirely if it had less interesting names attached to it.

Formerly titled “God of Carnage” and written by Yasmina Reza (who’s credited with Polanski for the screen adaptation), this is the story of two upscale married couples who have met to discuss a playground fight that occurred between their sons. Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly) are the parents of the boy who lost some teeth in the fracas; Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) are the apologetic parents of the aggressor. Since these are civilized, reasonable adults who live in nice homes in the good part of Brooklyn, there is no need for arguing or finger-pointing. On the other hand, there does seem to be a lot of demand for smugness and passive-aggressiveness.

Everyone starts out cordial enough, but you can see it won’t last. The actors have been well-cast in roles that emphasize their strengths. The Jodie Foster character is a strong-willed do-gooder, so it’s only a matter of time before she butts heads with the Christoph Waltz character, an arrogant lawyer who’s as good at parsing the subtle meaning of words as she is. The Kate Winslet character is less uptight than Foster, a little warmer, but quick to defend herself. The John C. Reilly character just wants everyone to be happy and get along … at first.

These four are the only characters, Penelope and Michael’s apartment the only location. To the extent that it’s claustrophobic, it feels intentional: we’re trapped in this 80-minute, real-time discussion just like they are. We have the luxury of laughing at things they have to take seriously, though, and that emotional distance helps us enjoy the humor in the awkward situations that arise, the darkly comic subjects that come up in the conversation. Though all four are alike in many ways — their WASP-y sense of entitlement and self-satisfaction — their personalities are different enough to allow for a variety of amusing permutations. One minute it’s couple against couple; the next it’s the men versus the women; then it’s three against one. Everyone has a legitimate reason, at some point in the evening, to be appalled by everyone else’s behavior. The introduction of alcohol to the proceedings adds fuel to the fire.

It’s all reasonably entertaining to watch, occasionally very funny, and it never drags — no small feat for a one-set film with only four actors. (Then again, with “Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and “The Tenant” under his belt, Polanski is an old pro with apartment-based stories.) But there isn’t much to it. For as pointed as the underlying social commentary is — humans are naturally brutal creatures who must be trained to be civilized — it doesn’t have any real bite, nor does the verbal sparring between these four supercilious dopes amount to anything out of the ordinary. On top of that, the abrupt conclusion is unsatisfying. We were hoping that this depiction of upper-class hell would lead to some real scorch marks.

C+ (1 hr., 20 min.; R, about a dozen F-words.)

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