Dec. 18, 2011 at 3:03 AM ET
Roman Polanski's "Carnage" puts four talented actors in one room and lets them circle each other, moving from polite to friendly to hateful and drunk in just over an hour. There are some great performances and a few memorable moments, but mostly, when it's over, you feel as if you've just eavesdropped on a fight between nasty strangers that you won't really remember a few hours from now.
"Carnage" is based on Yasmina Reza's popular play, "God of Carnage," and its theatrical origins are obvious. On the stage it would make sense that the actors would stay in one room, here, that's less so. Several times, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet) attempt to leave the New York apartment of Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), but somehow never make it out. The first time, that seems plausible. But by the third, you're thinking that unless someone had broken a leg, there's just no way these people would still be together at this point. Even the characters themselves point it out.
The actors play two sets of parents discussing a fight between their sons, and their overinvolvement in their kids' lives is purely ripped from the book of Rich New Yorker problems. Why do they need to discuss this in person, with all four present? Why do they need to type up a statement agreeing on what happened? When the actors' patter is going well, you don't think about these questions, but when it drags, they loom large.
Of the four, Foster perhaps has the toughest role. Her Penelope is horrid and hateful from the first minutes of the film, when she declares that the other couple's son was "armed" with a stick, then puts on a false and cheery sense of accommodation as she changes it to "carrying a stick."
Reilly and Foster never seem like a couple. She's all about her art books, he's a blue-collar boob who's more than familiar with cleaning up vomit when a tormented Winslet lets fly.
It's easier to buy Waltz and Winslet together, and he especially is fun to watch. Hints of his Oscar-winning performance as a mind-game-loving Nazi in "Inglorious Basterds" come through in Alan, a lawyer defending a drug company that's aware its product is hurting patients. When he's not on the phone directing the public-relations chaos, he's the one who's most interested in the conflict as a game, needling each player, even his own wife, in turn, and especially making a dent in pompous do-gooder Penelope's self-image.
It occasionally seems that there must be a big plot point we haven't yet learned -- that the boy with the stick was actually the victim, that the injured child's family plans a whopper of a lawsuit, or something else that would change the lay of the land. Spoiler alert: That never really happens. The stakes are exactly what they seem to be, and they just don't seem worthy of such dramatics.