Roman Polanski's caustic comedy of bad manners never lets viewers forget that it's adapted from the stage. Rather than "opening up" Yasmina Reza's Tony winning play God of Carnage, it remains entrenched in an apartment and its hallway. Only the wordless prologue and epilogue show the world outside this well-decorated viper pit, where four civilized adults descend into childish savagery.
A playground incident throws these previous strangers together, with the son of Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet) injuring the son of Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster) with one swing of a stick. Debating semantics of whether the boy was "armed" or merely "carrying" the stick causes the first cracks in their civil veneer.
Coffee and cobbler are shared, small talk seeks common ground and pride gets swallowed like bile until Nancy literally regurgitates it on Penelope's prized art books. From there, the afternoon rapidly descends into snippy recriminations and shifting loyalties. Neither couple is happily married for various reasons. Finding a common enemy appears to bring them closer, but not for long.
The fixed setting is better to fully appreciate a Murderer's Row of terrific performances. Foster hasn't appeared this emotionally naked on screen in years, pushing Penelope's high-strung personality to the brink of apoplexy. Reilly's innate goofiness seems slightly out of place but works in his favor when Michael's claws come out. Winslet conveys a cold, brittle personality that always got its way before, and this time won't be any different.
Then there is Waltz, whose mischievous smiles when Alan hits a nerve are priceless. Waltz is the villain you love to hate, relishing animosity and convincing viewers to do the same. He's the most marvelous louse in movies today, and one of those actors guaranteeing something to enjoy even in flops like The Green Hornet and Water for Elephants. Simply a brilliant actor.
Carnage is confined chaos and unusually short at 87 minutes, ending with the abruptness of a curtain dropping. It's very possible to wonder what all this hostility means when it's over, and not have an answer. But Carnage gives Polanski the best opportunity to express his devilish sense of humor in decades, proving again that comedy really is tragedy happening to someone else. (BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg, Woodlands 20 in Oldsmar, Veterans 24 in Tampa. Rated R.)
Grade: B +
Steve Persall, Times movie critic