The Longstreets and Cowans meet to discuss their children's fight in Carnage.
With names like Roman Polanski, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, and Kate Winslet front and center, Carnage has no right being such a wet blanket of a movie. Its premise is golden—two sets of parents meet to discuss a physical altercation between their children. Chaos, of course, ensues, but it's not all that funny—and not remotely insightful. I'd even go so far as to call it offensive—a monicker I don't use lightly. But the film becomes excruciatingly simplistic the longer it goes on, and the laughs promised by the film's brilliant trailer never show up.
It's hard to believe a playground scuffle could cause so much far-reaching trouble, but thus is Carnage. In one corner, Ethan Longstreet. In the other, Zachary Cowan. We never meet the boys, but we know Ethan refused Zachary entry into his gang, and the latter retaliated by striking the former in the mouth with a stick. Several lost teeth and some nerve damage later, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Foster and Reilly) graciously invite Nancy and Alan Cowan (Winslet and Waltz) into their home to discuss the incident and how to proceed. They bicker a little over nomenclature, but for the most part, they are genial toward each other. It's not long, however, before talks collapse, and the uptight, community-minded Penelope is ready to kill disinterested lawyer Alan. And while the generally submissive Michael tries to keep the piece, poor animal-loving Nancy is in the corner vomiting.
The film's biggest problem is painfully obvious: There aren't any remotely likable people in the entire film. Michael perhaps is the closest to an agreeable individual, and he's the one who left an innocent and terrified hamster in an alley to die. To be fair, Nancy isn't terrible either, but she's far from a saint. Penelope and Alan, however, are just despicable—the former in a really annoying way, the latter in an admittedly funny way.
Yes, Waltz is funny, but the rest of the cast doesn't fare out so well. Winslet is sort of a non-entity, oddly enough. Her character is the most subdued of the bunch, when all is said and done, and unfortunately, Winslet doesn't do much to bring her more into the forefront. Foster and Reilly, on the other hand, are complete disasters. Penelope is the film's loudest and most bombastic individual, and Foster plays her in a nails-on-the-chalkboard sort of way. As far as Reilly goes, the screenplay is as much at fault as he is for such a poorly developed character. He seems relatively normal for so much of the film until he literally decides he doesn't want to be nice anymore. It's such an abrupt and jarring shift that it throws the entire final third of the film off its axis.
With such detestable people populating the screen, it should come as no surprise that Polanski and cowriter Yasmina Reza (who wrote the beloved play upon which the film is based) throw every gender cliche they can come up with at you. By the end of the film's scant 80-minute running time, they only thing you'll learn is that men are dicks and women are shrews. Gender stereotypes get set back about 50 years as Alan and Michael chomp on their cigars while Penelope and Nancy shout hysterics at them.
If you thought Roman Polanski seemed like an odd choice for a project like this, your suspicions were valid. The film has absolutely no directorial identity. It also squanders any attempt to play up the almost surreal elements in the plot. There's a little bit of The Exterminating Angel here, with the characters unwilling (or unable?) to just get up and leave. It would have been smart for Polanski to play that up a little more—anything to distract us from the slog of spending time (no matter how short) with these horrible people. By the end, you won't have taken sides with either child in the altercation that started the whole affair. You'll just feel sorry that they both have such awful parents.