Film Review: 'Carnage' a confined comedy of bad manners

Structurally, Roman Polanski's “Carnage” hearkens back to his first feature, “Knife in the Water” (1962). “When a handful of people are stuck in a confined space, the layers of civilized social convention are peeled away, revealing hidden savagery beneath”: that would serve nicely as a TV schedule description of either film. “Knife in the Water” showed a couple and one stranger on a yacht; “Carnage,” two couples in the living room of a New York apartment.

The main action here is book-ended by two short scenes in a local park, the first of which sets up the situation: A group of 11-year-olds are having some sort of dispute — we see this from at least a hundred feet away, so it's hard to be sure exactly what's at stake — ending with one of them whacking another on the head with a hockey stick.

Cut to the apartment where the whacker's parents — Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet) Cowan — have come to apologize (or something like that) to the whackee's parents, Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope (Jodie Foster) Longstreet. This awkward encounter is about to break up, but, as Alan and Nancy are just out the door, they're invited back in for coffee.

The entire movie transpires in an hour and a quarter of real time; and every ten or fifteen minutes, the Cowans will be on their way out ... without ever quite leaving. Something or another always stops them. It's basically a more realistic take on the premise of Luis Bunuel's “Exterminating Angel.” (It has more frequently been characterized as “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Lite,” which is not unfair.)

Initially, the tension is between the two couples, usually concerning whether or not the Longstreets' kid might deserve a little bit of the blame for the whacking. But, as each couple begins to expose its internal conflicts, the sides reconfigure in every possible combination — most frequently, the men vs. the women. These four supposedly mature adults quickly descend to the sort of raw, animal behavior that triggered the boys' fight. You could call the whole thing a Comedy of (Bad) Manners.

Polanski wrote the screenplay together with Yasmina Reza, author of the original French stage play, “God of Carnage” (which was a hit in Paris, London and New York). Polanski is a master of claustrophobia — think of “Repulsion,” “Rosemary's Baby” and “The Tenant” — and has wisely avoided “opening out” the action. (Having even one outside scene in the film version of “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” deflated some of that play's tension.)

The actors are all terrific, though Winslet gets less to work with than the others. Almost from the beginning, Foster's cordiality seems forced, a thin veneer trying to disguise her rage; as things progress, her facial expressions grow so tight that you begin to worry that Foster herself is about to spontaneously combust.

Have I mentioned that “Carnage” is a comedy? It's a deeply unpleasant comedy — no surprise for Polanski — even while being very funny. Waltz in particular is hysterical. His character is smug and boorish — the sort of guy who loudly and repeatedly takes cell phone calls in the middle of a conversation and then complains that the others are eavesdropping.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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