Carnage, a big-screen adaptation of a play by Yasmina Reza, struck me as Edward Albee light, 79 minutes of burgeoning sarcasm and spewed venom that's supposed to deprive its characters of all their civilized pretexts.
But instead of feeling like a scathing revelation, this semi-satirical drama seems only to be putting its characters through a lot of pre-determined motions. The game feels rigged, and it's not all that interesting anyway.
The story is simple. Two sets of New York parents meet after the son of one has attacked the son of the other with a stick, knocking out a couple of teeth. One set of parents seems determined to use the incident as a teaching moment; the other seems vaguely conciliatory, but we know from the outset that the initially hopeful mood will give way to something far less polite.
The acting, alas, struck me as variable. Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz portray Alan and Nancy Cowan. She's an investment adviser; he's an attorney. The Cowans visit the apartment of Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodi Foster), parents of the boy who was clobbered.
To some degree, Carnage aims at satirizing middle-class pretensions. Only Waltz's Alan Cowan, a lawyer who's representing a pharmaceutical company in the midst of a crisis, seems reluctant to play the role of deeply concerned parent. He's too busy taking calls on his cell phone, much to the annoyance of his wife and also, I'm afraid, the audience.
Of all the actors, Winslet struck me as most convincing -- with Reilly bringing up a reasonable second. Foster, on the other hand, seems miscast as a mother who carries her liberal values with stiff determination and self-righteous fury. Foster's performance vacilates between brittle and shrill and, at times, she seemed so overwrought I feared her head might explode.
Credit director Roman Polanski for keeping the proceedings fleet and for preventing the movie -- set almost entirely in one Brooklyn apartment -- from feeling boxed in.
Reza's play, first staged in France, came to Broadway starring James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis. I can imagine that being in the company of the actors would give this material a considerable boost. But on film, Carnage comes across as not terribly insightful and only fitfully amusing.