Not a lot happens, in the usual sense of movie action, in “Carnage,” Roman Polanski’s swift and spry adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play: voices are raised; whiskey is drunk; leftover fruit cobbler is consumed and (spoiler alert!) vomited. A few slightly more dramatic events have already taken place before the action starts. There has been a playground altercation between two young boys, and a hamster has been removed from a comfortable high-rise apartment and abandoned to its fate on the streets of Brooklyn.
After spending some time in that apartment — a lovely piece of real estate, by the way, with million-dollar views and, most likely, an even higher appraised value — you might conclude that the poor animal has actually been liberated. The four human characters in the play seem, in contrast, unable to escape. They are two married couples, the parents of those schoolboys, who are meeting to figure out what to do about the unfortunate incident involving their sons. The Longstreets (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), whose child Zachary was injured, are the hosts. On several occasions their visitors, the Cowans (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), make ready to leave, getting as far as the elevators before being drawn back into the Longstreets’ living room, as if compelled by a sorcerer’s curse or an unseen, chthonic force.
One name for which might be the God of Carnage, the title of Ms. Reza’s play when it came to Broadway in 2009 by way of Paris. The glib alluring notion that spins through 80 minutes of contentious dialogue is that beneath the surface of civilized behavior lurks an unquenchable animal impulse, a principle of aggression we labor in vain to suppress. As the Cowans and the Longstreets go through the motions of mature, reasonable conflict resolution, that old primal force asserts itself in various forms. These nice, complacent people turn angry, competitive, contemptuous and stupid. The spectator, gliding and feinting around the edges of the room with Mr. Polanski’s nimble camera, anticipates violence and perhaps hopes for it to erupt.
And there is some satisfaction in seeing this curious form of blood sport performed by professionals. All of the actors conduct themselves skillfully — hitting their marks and tearing through the sometimes awkward idioms of a translated script — without being entirely convincing. As Penelope Longstreet, a high-strung, high-minded avatar of liberal hypocrisy, Ms. Foster is frighteningly intense, and her skirmishes with Alan Cowan, Mr. Waltz’s cynical corporate lawyer, are full of vigor and venom. But the characters never quite rise above New Yorker-cartoon-style caricature. The smug big shot with his suit and his cellphone. The smug do-gooder with her fancy recipes and her African art.
Along with their less-sharply-etched spouses — I’m not knocking Mr. Reilly or Ms. Winslet, just locating a soft spot in Ms. Reza’s text — Alan and Penelope are representatives of a social type that is meant to be at once global and local. They belong to a cosmopolitan, urban upper middle class that flourishes in the cities of the developed world. But satire requires a bit more specificity, and as a portrait of anxious, status-conscious Brooklyn parents living in a chiaroscuro of self-righteousness and guilt, “Carnage” misses its mark badly.
I know these people. Why be coy? I am these people. And while these people might well be the parents of a Zachary and an Ethan, the sister of a Zachary would much more plausibly be a Sophie or an Emma than a Courtney. (Courtney? What is this, Beverly Hills? Reality television? Come on!) The elder Cowans and Longstreets would be on a first-name basis from the start so that the “call me Penelope,” “call me Alan” moment would never occur. (In France an invitation to replace the formal vous with the familiar tu might well be part of an encounter like this one, but this is not France.) And someone with Penelope Longstreet’s political views and multicultural concerns would be most unlikely to proclaim herself, without irony, a defender of “Western values.”
This may seem like nitpicking, but “Carnage” is partly about the narcissism of small differences — the nuances of rank, taste and behavior that take on disproportionate importance in close quarters — and fudged or sloppy details expose a larger weakness of design. Like Ms. Reza’s “Art” this play consists of a superficially provocative idea slapped onto an almost-probable situation and whipped into a froth of hyper-articulate nonsense.
No history of tenderness or tension clings to the couples. It is all but impossible to imagine that any of them have lives beyond the walls of the apartment. This may be part of the point, since “Carnage” is, formally at least, a study in claustrophobia. Confinement is Mr. Polanski’s signature. This is not the first time he has observed, with morbid and mischievous fascination, the behavior of people in apartments — there was Catherine Deneuve in “Repulsion,” Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby,” Adrien Brody in “The Pianist” — and here he proves himself once again to be a virtuoso of entrapment.
But in trapping Ms. Reza’s play in the framed, flat dimensions of the screen, the director destroys it. In the theater the audience and the actors occupy the same space, which in this case means that the spectators are complicit in the ritual scourging taking place onstage. Theatrical space is already a world unto itself. But in Mr. Polanski’s film we are continually, literally aware of the world beyond the Longstreets’ apartment, which is visible through their windows. And this knowledge makes their bickering and posturing seem both unreal and trivial.
“Carnage,” in any case, should not really be a movie. It should be a parlor game. My colleague Dwight Garner has already proposed a simple version consisting of a four-person reading of the play around a table, which sounds like more fun than watching Mr. Polanski’s film. But the idea could be refined further into a brutal amalgam of Twister, charades and contract bridge. We’ll need a dish of cold cobbler, a bottle of good Scotch, a cellphone, repressed hostility and vaguely liberal attitudes. Let’s play! I’ll be the hamster.