WHEN FOUR adults attempt to mediate a playground dispute, it all goes desperately wrong in Roman Polanski's bitter comedy "Carnage."
The pic is claustrophobic by design - four characters, one apartment - but we're trapped in this small space with a pretty enviable cast.
Mike and Penelope (John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster) are the concerned parents of a boy wounded in a scuffle among grade-school lads. They invite the parents (Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz) of the perp for a "friendly" exchange, and all four attempt to hammer out the wording and circumstances of a formal apology (any parent knows what a terrible idea this is).
This sit-down is more than a little pompous - it has the air of negotiations for multinational surrender and reparations - and so is the woman, Penelope, who arranges it.
Her needling, innuendo, and righteous need to adjudicate a kiddie squabble combine to form one of the dangerously flammable elements here. The other is the bottle of single malt scotch her husband insists on opening.
Soon all hell breaks loose. Pretenses are dropped, guards let down, and we get a lively display of raw nerves, exposed feelings and at one point, projectile vomiting.
The movie, adapted from a long-running Broadway play, has a funny insight - that all arguments involving married couples, no matter what the subject, end up activating existing marital fault lines.
The screaming, bitchy, booze-fueled exchanges of "Carnage" turn into group therapy, with each spouse identifying, under duress, what he/she doesn't like about the other. (Keep all of this in mind if you plan on making "Carnage" your date night movie with your spouse.)
This has black comedy potential, but "Carnage" is less gruesome fun that it might have been, and for a surprising reason - the performances.
Foster goes way overboard with a screeching caricature of an uptight, frustrated, hypercompetitive helicopter mom, and Winslet is stranded in a role without the wit and intelligence that are her strengths.
The men have more fun. Waltz contributes a corporate version of his "Inglourious Basterds" character, and Reilly, the only non-Oscar winner in the bunch, steals the show as the blue-collar hubby who keeps his perfectionist wife at bay with Glenfiddich.
The action is set in New York, but Polanski, still a fugitive from this country, filmed it in Paris.