Like the stage play, Carnage (as it’s now been truncated for movie marquees) is a high-tone, acid-witted examination of what happens when the boundaries of polite society are whittled away. The story concerns the parents of Ethan and Zachary, two preteen boys who got into a school-yard scrap. Zach hit Ethan with a stick and broke two of his teeth. As recounted under the opening credits, this catalytic fight lasts all of about five seconds. The repercussions, however, resonate for considerably longer. Alan and Nancy Cowan (Waltz and Winslet) are the uptight, yuppified parents of Zach, “the bully.” Michael and Penelope Longstreet (Reilly and Foster) are the politically correct, working-class parents of Ethan, “the victim.” The four have gathered together at the Longstreets’ small Brooklyn apartment to hash out the aftereffects of the fight. Alan and Nancy have agreed to pay for Ethan’s dental work and make their son apologize. Everything, it seems, is fine and dandy. Except that Carnage simply won’t allow its characters to escape the confines of the setting. Excuse after excuse is invented to keep the Cowans from exiting. By the end, insults are flying like rabid bats. And yet nobody thinks to just get the hell up and leave.
The actors are skillful enough playing nasty, irritating and ultimately awful people. Workaholic lawyer Mr. Cowan spends the entire time barking orders into his cell phone. Brittle investment banker Mrs. Cowan pukes all over the coffee table. Wannabe writer Mrs. Longstreet sanctimoniously lectures everyone within earshot. And plumbing salesman Mr. Longstreet makes increasingly racist and callow remarks. (The guy hates hamsters, for crying out loud.) If you’re keeping score, Waltz and Winslet come out looking the best, if only because their characters are slightly more believably written than either of the Longstreets. But the audience is never less than fully aware that the cutting dialogue and the pressure-cooker setting have all been carefully (you might say callously) constructed to peel away the polite behavior of modern man to reveal the primitive savage beneath. This is 2012. Isn’t that what we have “The Real World,” “Big Brother,” “The Bachelor” and “Jersey Shore” for?
If Carnage is a comedy, Polanski seems to have missed it. He moves briskly for an old man, staging the entire catastrophic social experiment in a breathless 79 minutes. But the air quickly rushes out of the room, turning the cynical, discomfiting wit of the stage play into smug, atonal mockery. In a way, the man who gave us such claustrophobic, urban-angsty horror flicks as Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant would seem like the perfect man to helm this project. But it’s a hopelessly stage-bound tale that can’t quite survive inflation to the big screen. Maybe if they’d shot it in 3D. Or not.