- - Thursday, January 12, 2012

As a viewer squarely in the demographic sights of this bit of yuppie mise-en-scene, I was surprised and disappointed to see “Carnage” flop so badly.

The film’s premise is irresistible: A claustrophobic, single-set drama in which two upscale Brooklyn couples — one lace curtain, the other a bit bohemian — meet to parse out blame over an incident of violence between their two sons.

The casting seemed beyond reproach. Jodie Foster plays Penelope. Her husband, Michael, is played by John C. Reilly. Nancy and Alan, the other couple, are played by Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz.

The precipitating incident is shown only in broad strokes, at the opening of the film. Zachary — Nancy and Alan’s son — strikes classmate Ethan with a stick, after being taunted by a group of kids. (Director Roman Polanski’s felonious exile from the United States gives occasion here for one of the most regrettable CGI sequences in movie history, in which a grassy field is inserted into the stately Brooklyn Heights Promenade.) From the beginning, the antagonism between the couples creeps through their attempts to appear high-minded. Penelope, especially, presents herself as a caring, civilized paragon and somehow able to view the episode objectively. But this veneer of civilization begins to peel away, as the characters undermine each other with cutting turns of phrase.

The conflict that eventually emerges, in which the playground savagery that brought the boys into conflict is recapitulated in the drawing room sniping of the grownups, is all too predictable. The juxtaposition of civilization and savagery feels like a parable from an introductory seminar on Rousseau, perhaps in keeping with the French origins of the play on which the film is based. There’s quite a bit more that the play gets wrong in its adaptation to an American upper-class milieu, mostly in minute details that in aggregate detract from the intensity the film is trying to establish.

More than that, the film is perhaps too true to its theatrical source material in a more basic way. Almost all of the action takes place in a single living room, with side trips to a bathroom and the hallway of an apartment building. There is nothing particularly cinematic about the way the characters are drawn and developed. In live theater, the presence of the actors encourages the audience to form affections and antipathies. On stage, the unforced disclosures and sudden remonstrances that the couples engage in might feel spontaneous and improvisational. Here, they seem canned and tossed off.

The actors do their best. In particular, Mr. Waltz is a delight to watch as a callous lawyer who alternates between taking calls on his cellphone and participating in the general conversation. But watching the exquisitely disruptive timing of the phone calls just makes one realize how intense and exciting this might appear on a stage, and how humdrum it is on screen.


TITLE: “Carnage”

CREDITS: Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay by Yasmina Reza and Polanski, based on the play “Le Dieu du Carnage” by Ms. Reza.

RATING: R for language and adult themes

RUNNING TIME: 79 minutes


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