Roman Polanski's Carnage, based on the popular play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, is a tangy amusement about an after-school mediation session that goes bad. Aside from the prologue—one little boy bopping another boy with a tree branch—we never leave the flat of a well-off Brooklyn couple. Host Michael (John C. Reilly) is a gregarious, lumpy executive at a household hardware company. Meet his wife, Penelope (Jodie Foster), whose upcoming book about Darfur makes her particularly ready to forgive and forget playground violence.
The father of the off-screen bullying boy is Alan, a snide lawyer (Christoph Waltz). If the ensuing game of Get the Guests reminds the viewer of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, certainly Alan's wife, Annette (Kate Winslet), is the group's Honey—a touch of brass to the gold hair, and more than a touch of nausea.
Waltz, who reminds one of Jason Robards, knows how to inject a word with poison. Foster satirizes the kind of do-gooder she probably encounters a dozen times a day—many of them in the mirror. But the strange thing is that the more Carnage flaunts amusingly the idea that man is a wolf to man, the cozier it gets. Carnage's witty attack on "nice" people is like Orwell's description of Charles Dickens: a man beating the conservative elephant with a cane, and the beast feeling it as a delightful tickling. In this case, it's the weepy liberal getting thwacked.
But is Penelope such a phony? Those who are trying to rescue Africa aren't opposed by some evil deity; it's not some gory Kronos who put AK-47s into the hands of eight-year-olds. Something in Carnage's argument bypasses the real story of post-colonial Africa. In laughing at all that, it's as if you were complicit in making a man a beggar—then mocked him for his filth and the bloodiness of his life.
'Carnage' opens Jan. 13 at Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa.