Four characters begin in a room together, and despite their best efforts, never leave for the film’s 80-minute running time. Could it be that this film was based on a play?

In fact, as the practicality of this scenario might suggest, Carnage was indeed based on a Tony winning play by Yasmin Reza, who worked with the film’s director Roman Polanski to adapt it for the screen. By the looks of it, not many adjustments were necessary.

The first in our pair of Manhattan couples are the Longstreets. Penelope (Jodie Foster) is a passive aggressive art obsessive who is writing a book about the tragedy in Darfur, and her husband Michael (John C. Reilly) is an easy-going bathroom fixture salesman.

Opposite are the Cowans: Alan (Christophe Waltz) is a lawyer in the midst of protecting a pharmaceutical company from covered up drug side effects, and Nancy (Kate Winslet), a character with a level head but an upset stomach, is trying to keep her husband from leaving.

But why are they there? After fifty minutes, they might ask you the same question, though ostensibly they have convened to discuss the fallout of a fight between their sons: little Mr. Cowan knocked two teeth from the mouth of little Mr. Longstreet.

The four remind each other countless times that their meeting is in the spirit of reconciliation. However, we begin to wonder what such a spirit might consist in, as the two parties involved are so stubborn in their respective points of view.

Right off the bat, we are tempted to label this a modern comedy of manners. The limits of politeness are tested as each of the characters struggle to act reasonably, while a seething rage lingers just below the surface.

Reza plays with our expectations of this comedic genre. After a particularly intense (yet forgivable) outburst from Nancy about half-way through the film (one which you won’t soon forget), the social masks begin to slip.

From here on, the proceedings swiftly devolve into a no holds barred cage match between the four characters, as the ties bonding the couples as teammates break apart.

Accusations fly every which way on topics such as masculinity, marital trust, social responsibility and charitable pride. The characters probe very deeply into none of these topics, and the superficial glancing is done to great comic effect.

The fast pace of the dialogue and frustrating amount of subtext requires some serious acrobatics on the parts of the actors. Waltz in particular does an impressive job of making his smugly detached character sickeningly realistic.

The camera constrains the dynamism of the characters, which makes watching the scenes unravel outside of their original stage context a slightly wanting experience. It is a shame to miss out on each of the characters reactions to every delicious line of Reza’s dialogue.

While the ability to relate to the situation may be limited for those not steeped in the manners of the upper-middle class, anyone can enjoy these four Manhattanites getting unintentionally drunk and yelling at each other.

Additional Info

  • Subtitle: Director Roman Polanski's latest comedy is a living room battle royale
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