Carnage is a film adaptation of playwright Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, an international smash that claimed the 2009 Tony Award for best play. Its subject: an act of schoolyard violence that brings together two sets of parents to process their children's conflict, an evening that careens from tight-jawed niceties to drunken brawling. The film is directed by the Oscar-winning Roman Polanski and stars the Oscar-winning Jodie Foster, the Oscar-winning Kate Winslet, the Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz, and the Oscar-free-yet-highly-esteemed John C. Reilly. The prestige wafting off the project is enough to knock you back a step and will certainly tempt a wide swath of filmgoers to line up for its delights.
These filmgoers are in for an unpleasant shock. With its four-person cast and restricted locale (the living room of a Brooklyn apartment), Carnage clearly aims to create a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the Montessori set, rich with wordplay-as-swordplay and ever-less-civilly clashing intent. This sounds terrific, especially with actors the caliber of Foster and Winslet doing the clashing. So how did Carnage end up such a dud?
The majority of the blame must fall on the source: playwright Reza, who seems intent on finding new ways to avoid the natural spark of humanity in favor of an inert, proclamatory style so wooden it makes the performances in Woody Allen's September look like cinema verité. That any writer could enter the minefield of parents discussing their children and find nothing but arbitrary disagreements and philosophical dead ends is a perverse miracle unto itself. Yet Reza does it, fleshing out her hour-plus of argument with dialogue so stilted it drags down everything it touches, including the cast, all of whom are not only bad, but aggressively bad. The emotional exertions these world-class actors are willing to make in the service of Reza's DOA dialogue are stunning (the veins in Foster's neck should be considered for best supporting actress) but add up to nothing. I guarantee that a mumblecore version of Carnage in which the mighty cast improvised its own dialogue around the prompt "two sets of parents meet to discuss their children's conflict" would be 100 times more revelatory and entertaining than what's on display here.