What do you get when you mix together a self-righteous martyr, a would-be macho man, an uptight sickie, and a coldhearted prick? There is an answer to such a riddle in the dark comedy Carnage, but if you’re expecting to chuckle, you might hear the sound of crickets chirping first.

After an altercation between their young sons, couples Penelope and Michael (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly) and Nancy and Alan (Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz) convene to discuss how to smooth things over without causing a stir. The meeting begins on the right foot despite mild tension among the four of them, but the attempt at peacemaking quickly starts to go sour. An elongated conversation soon dissolves into an argument about the unresolved issue involving their kids, and the tête à tête only goes worse the longer it continues.

As the woman who orchestrates the endeavor of talking things out, Foster draws us and her guests in with a welcoming smile and a cobbler to die for, but the warmer parts of her personality can’t distract from the fact that Penny is an unwavering busybody. The actress’s forceful nature works well in this capacity, especially when she starts to let her guard down and says what she really thinks. Playing her slightly lunkheaded husband, Reilly is also suited for his part. The most uncouth character of the foursome benefits from the Step Brothers star’s knack for being — or pretending to be — the dumbest guy in an ensemble. Just look at his work in Boogie Nights, Gangs of New York, The Hours, and Chicago. But, just because he’s the only actor of the quartet not to have an Oscar on his mantle, doesn’t mean he can’t handle the material. Waltz is the one who seems out of place.

He isn’t miscast, per se, but with his unmistakable accent slipping through, he makes snobbish Alan seem haughtier than he might intend. A cell phone that never once leaves his grip also contributes to that, as he insists on interrupting the get-together with loud calls, and makes clear right away, how little he cares about the people in his company. Winslet, who’s long since been able to hide her European inflection, offers compensation for this as his aggrieved spouse. Of all four, Nancy is only one who can’t be pinpointed right away, and changes her tone the most from our introduction to her compared to the film’s end. To add to that, she winds up looking like the biggest ass of the bunch when she blows chunks in one of the best movie barf scenes in recent memory.

Leave it to Roman Polanski to take on a movie like this. With all his recent controversy you’d expect that bile to spill over into his craft, which is already inherently volatile by adhering to his usual directorial style. A story that starts off with one 11-year-old smacking another in the face with a tree branch, and concludes with their parents screaming at each other, hardly seems like the expected way to go for the man who brought audiences Chinatown and The Pianist. Polanski’s contribution to Yasmina Reza’s screenplay — who adapted her own theatrical play, Le Dieu du Carnage — is tough to discern. Such is the case with so many films with stage origins, especially those set in a confined space. With most of the action taking place in Penny and Michael’s Brooklyn apartment, there’s a sense of intimacy that turns into claustrophobia before long, with the pacing reflecting how quickly the niceties can vanish, moving toward couple vs. couple, wife vs. husband, and men vs. women. Polite small talk about what separates cake from pie turns into a skirmish about how parents should handle their children’s pets, and before you know it, the adults here are comparing their situation to that of refugees in Darfur!

“Talky” isn’t an adjective that describes a movie in the best light, and that’s the conflict here. Good acting and masterful direction can’t salvage something that probably isn’t at its most functional in the film medium. The transition may have worked for a similar portrait of verbal backbiting like in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but frankly, can Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton be equaled? Having never seen the theater performances by those who have played the characters of Penny, Michael, Nancy and Alan on stage —including the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Janet McTeer, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden — it’s hard to say if Foster, Reilly, Winslet and Waltz, stack up. Even so, their willingness to take on such a blitzkrieg of dialogue is admirable.

The key downfall of Carnage is that it likely needs to be seen live. What works as a great play, makes a good movie, at best. The capable cast can connect with us via a projector, but seeing them beneath a proscenium arch in person would make Reza’s characters truly come to life. And, once the scotch comes out, that’s when things get really interesting…

Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

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