Verbal comedy. Is that a movie category? Because that definition fits "Carnage" incredibly well. The film is a dialectical battle of two couples, the Cowan, Nancy and Alan, and the Longstreet, Penelope and Michael, gathered to resolve, as the civilised and sanctimonious people they are, a quite serious "issue": the Cowan's son has beaten the Longstreet's kid with a stick, seriously injuring the latter's teeth. But soon the viewer will realise the four are not what they suppose/presume to be...
"Carnage" is clearly the screen adaptation of the play "God of Carnage" (Yasmine Reza, the original author, also co-writes the film script). Wait, it is more than that. It looks as if t we were watching the play itself. It all happens in virtually one room (the Longstreet's living room), in one afternoon and (almost) with only the four characters being on screen. And this fact has several virtues, as well as a few limitations.
Director Roman Polanski has to be praised for not "throwing" his ego on the film. The short length and straightforward timing in "Carnage" are key elements that allow the film to exude rhythm and dynamism. Together with the simplistic setting and lack of grandiloquence serves the comedy very well. What matters are the characters and its collection of one-liners and bourgeois traumas. I also liked Polanski's clinic eye to give, with subtle and noteworthy talent, such importance and presence to the objects on the Longstreet's apartment.
Of course, if we talk about characters, a major factor are obviously the actors. And Polanski relies on a very experimented and reliable quartet. Penelope Longstreet, played by Jodie Foster, is the more histrionic of the four, a passive-aggressive wife really wanting to push the boundaries of her guests as she is not only the concerned mother of the injured son, but a moral watchdog of Western civilisation. She is the hardest role to play and Foster's mannerisms are arguably the more dubious. Foster is closely followed by Nancy Cowan, performed by Kate Winslet. She, as the stressed mother of the "abuser" kid wants to be nice at first, but she turns, on the most extreme transformation of the lot, into an uncontrolled beast, physically speaking too.
In my opinion, the husbands are the most satisfying characters. Michael Longstreet, played by John C. Reilly starts being the kindest and accommodating person of the quartet, then evolving into a much more complex character, and amalgamation of frustration and resignation. Reilly excels in giving a natural and convincing force to Michael. And then we have Alan Cowan, performed by Christoph Waltz. He probably steals the show with his mobile phone addiction and his aggressive-aggressive, malicious nature. He for sure has the best and funniest one-liners of the film.
Unfortunately, "Carnage" also suffers from the "play structure" constrictions. For sure, the spectator has to make an effort and believe on the credibility on such an awkward situation. The first half of the film is funny and subtle, as we know that each character is hiding (well, except Alan Cowan) his/her real nature for the sake of showing her/his good manners. We could say the film shines for what it insinuates and not for what it shows, in one word: tones of hypocrisy. But the turn of events and evolution of the characters on the second half of "Carnage" is a social example of the "snowball effect" taken to a hardly credible extreme. Funny still, and somewhat understandable as we are in front of a play, but the conversation derives into a very different territory from the initial abuser-victim too quickly. Hard to believe such solid social masks would crumble so easily after a couple of whisky shots (enough said). But hey, the truth is that before you will start complaining, the movie will reach its end. So overall, there's not a lot to regret after a straightforward, smart, funny and entertaining dark (very dark) verbal comedy, packed in less than 80 minutes.