'Carnage': Class-tinged battle of the sexes

A deeply cynical view of marriage, a wariness of coupledom, fidelity, and trust, has long been evident in Roman Polanski's work. In fact, his very first film, Knife in the Water, finds a husband and wife's relationship seriously jeopardized when a stranger happens along. And never mind all those Satanic busybodies in Rosemary's Baby - Mia Farrow, as the expectant New Yorker, is betrayed by her own spouse. In The Ghost Writer, the Tony Blair-like British PM played by Pierce Brosnan is icily at odds with his wife of many years.

So it's no wonder Polanski was keen to take on Yasmina Reza's play The God of Carnage: Here are two couples, brought together to talk over a bullying incident between their respective sons. They begin their afternoon with utmost civility and calm, but a mere 80 (real-time) minutes later in Polanski's deliciously nasty Carnage, the Cowans and the Longstreets are at one another's throats.

And Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) are going for each other's jugulars, too, as are Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster). Allegiances have been shattered, loyalties destroyed. The cozy Brooklyn apartment where their meeting takes place is a literal and figurative disaster area.

Think Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but then think fun. Although Foster, clenched and histrionic, doesn't quite find the appropriate ironic groove (her Penelope is a freelance writer whose singular interest is the plight of Africans), Reilly, Waltz, and Winslet seem to be in on the joke.

Waltz especially - as a lawyer with a crisis on his hands (a Big Pharma client in big trouble), he moves from one corner of the Longstreets' place to another, manning his cellphone as if he were alone in the world. His character is clueless, but the German actor of Inglourious Basterds fame - working a decent American accent - is winking all the way.

And as Winslet's Nancy casts increasingly anguished, embarrassed looks in her husband's direction (she's beginning to wish he was alone in the world, too), the actress expertly walks that path between truth and farce. Reilly's Michael is the lug of the bunch, a home furnishings wholesaler who cheerfully chats everybody up - until the cracks in his buffoonish facade are exposed.

Carnage is about the battle of the sexes, but it's also about class: The Cowans are New York elites, the Longstreets struggling to maintain their middle classiness. (Although their apartment, by New York real estate standards, is decidedly upper tier.) Was Ethan, the Longstreets' 11-year-old, really an innocent victim when he got thwacked in the head by the Cowans' boy? Or was there something about Ethan's station in life, and the sense of entitlement of his aggressor, that casts this schoolboy skirmish in a trickier sociocultural light?

As dark, dark comedies go, Carnage isn't deep. But as a piece of theater adapted for the screen - brilliantly, with Polanski's cinematographer pingponging us from one actor to the next - it is terrifically entertaining.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.



Directed by Roman Polanski. With Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 1 hours, 19 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for language).