In the opening scene of Carnage, shot from an impassive distance, one young boy whacks another upside the head with a large stick, hard enough to break teeth. The rest of the film, shot in much closer quarters, unfolds in a single apartment building, as the aggressor’s parents (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) and the victim’s parents (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) meet to discuss the incident. Being adults, of course, they’re certain to air any differences in opinion with civility and mutual respect, unlike their offspring. And failing that, surely the visiting couple will just leave, rather than stick around to be insulted further? Right?
Wrong, alas, because Roman Polanski’s latest film—as smartly directed and capably acted as you’d expect, given the talent involved—is adapted from God of Carnage, an inexplicably acclaimed stage play by Yasmina Reza (Art) that represents all the worst aspects of contemporary theater. It’s the sort of gleefully scabrous chamber piece that delights in exposing its characters as ugly, self-absorbed assholes hiding beneath a thin veneer of polite behavior, and its ping-pong hostility becomes tiresome in a hurry. Only a person with antisocial personality disorder (the serial-killer diagnosis) would identify with these cartoon versions of flawed humanity. As a businessman constantly distracted by his cell phone, Waltz has the juiciest role and the funniest lines, but not even he can entirely escape Reza’s moralistic straitjacket.