Considering the standard result in Roman Polanski movies of yuppies breeding in fancy New York apartments—birthing the spawn of Satan in Rosemary's Baby, that sort of thing—it's a wonder little Zachary Cowan has merely knocked out two of his classmate Ethan Longstreet's teeth with a stick to begin Carnage. The bitter comedy, which observes the hostilities that escalate when the Cowan parents visit the Longstreet pad to make a formal apology, has likewise been already consigned to the status of minor Polanski. Yes, it is nothing more than an adroitly choreographed one-act. Yes, Yasmina Reza's play rubs the veneer of civilization off the petit bourgeois with too obvious a gusto. (I've never seen anybody react so badly as these characters to an afternoon shot of whiskey.) But an opportunity for a quartet of actors to play self-regarding louts hasn't been grabbed with such relish since Mike Nichols made Closer.
Jodie Foster has the most fun with her persona: As often as she's been cast as an avenging victim of violence, it's hilarious to see her Penelope Longstreet insist on describing schoolboy Zachary as "armed" with that stick. As the Cowan paterfamilias, Christoph Waltz needles her with talk of "your friend Jane Fonda"—he's the one instigating most of the altercations, a practiced and subtle conversational underminer. And it's a brilliant stroke of casting to place John C. Reilly as Foster's placating husband, the practical working man who solves all conflicts by pretending they don't exist. (He has cured his fear of rodents by placing his daughter's hamster on the curb.) Only Kate Winslet fails to register for most of the movie, until her stomach rebels against an apple-and-pear cobbler. Inside, everyone churns.
Carnage's impact may have been dulled by timing. Nobody, not even Polanski, conveys the particular hell of polite company like Louis C.K. has been doing every week on television. But sometimes you have to get off the couch, and as an evening out for misanthropes, Carnage sure beats getting stuck at somebody's house. R.
76 SEE IT: Carnage opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre, Fox Tower, Eastport and City Center.