Given the tumultuous and tragic nature of director/child rapist Roman Polanski’s life, it’s no surprise he rarely touches comedy. Until the new “Carnage,” only 1967’s “The Fearless Vampire Killers” and 1986’s flop “Pirates” gunned for laughs.
Stemming from a disagreement between their sons that left one minus two teeth, Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet, “Contagion,” and Christoph Waltz, “Water for Elephants”) visit the apartment of Pen and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster, “The Beaver,” and John C. Reilly, “Cedar Rapids”) to smooth things over.
Yet, just as Pen commends the group for choosing “a sense of community” over “that adversarial mindset,” good intentions collapse into serrated shards. The couples begin quarreling, and within 80 minutes, even the pairs have fractured from the influence of alcohol.
From the film’s first line, its stage roots show. Dialogue among the actors is almost all small talk: hamsters, gingerbread crumbs atop cobbler, the ability of Coca-Cola to assuage nausea, blood-pressure medication and suffering in Africa. It’s only near the end that each character’s true self emerges to address the other elephants in the room.
All four play their parts well.
Waltz’s pharmaceutical attorney is shrewdly elitist opposite Winslet’s icy investment broker with a sour stomach. Foster practices passive-aggressiveness before bursting, while Reilly’s average-Joe seller of pots, pans, door handles, flush mechanisms “and other stuff” seems befuddled by all the hullabaloo.
Amusing but slight, “Carnage” appears to exist as an opportunity for the ensemble — three Oscar winners and one nominee — to act with a capital A.
But what, then, is the challenge for someone as gifted as Polanski? Splendid score by Alexandre Desplat (“The Tree of Life”) notwithstanding, nothing about the piece is particularly cinematic post-translation, and with the limited setting, there’s little room for him — or any filmmaker — to screw up. Perhaps after tackling something as rich and dense as 2010’s underseen “The Ghost Writer,” the small scale simply appealed to him.
It can to you, too, provided one is primed for a study of manners in which the punch lines aim for an internal response. For example, Waltz gets the greatest one: “It is.”