Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet in Carnage (2011)
This seems to be the agreed-upon snapshot.

Carnage was the first of two movies I saw at the most unwelcoming theater I’ve ever encountered yesterday. (Today, for the date that this is assigned.) I’ve been dying to see Carnage ever since I found out the cast, concept and the fact that it opened on a grand total of five screens last December to qualify for Oscars. It’s a four-hand screenplay based on the play The God of Carnage, as performed by Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly; directed by controversial figure (to say the least) Roman Polanski. It’s also my first feature-length outing with Roman Polanski (aside from one ill-advised encounter with Macbeth in high school), and I can safely say that this is, without a doubt, a movie.

It’s there. It’s a movie. It’s a good movie, to be sure, but around this time of year, all the same movies start coming out. They’re the movies that all look and feel like they were made to win awards, and in most cases, they were. I’m not saying Carnage is a bad movie or a dishonest movie or any less worthy as a movie for being made as “an important movie that deserves awards”. The end result is actually quite good. It’s just that it rings a little hollow. Like a play being performed on screen for an audience of critics. But, I owe you the rest of my impressions with this movie, and that starts off with two boys, a park, and a stick.

One of the boys hits the other with a stick, and their parents have to meet to discuss the altercation between them. Winslet and Waltz are Nancy and Alan Cowan, the parents of the boy with the stick; Reilly and Foster are Michael and Penelope Longstreet, the parents of the boy who needs two new teeth. Their interactions start off fairly civil, despite the Cowans’ need to exit the fashionably earthy New York apartment as fast as possible. Yet, over the course of one eventful afternoon, there will be dozens of phone calls, property damage, accusations of mother-poisoning, vomiting, namecalling and the most childish taunting imaginable. As well as a number of glasses of scotch, cold cobbler and warm cola.

The conflict is introduced early on in the costumes of the concerned parents–Alan and Nancy wear cold, black, white and blue business attire, Michael and Penelope in warm red and brown wool and khaki clothes. The Longstreets insist on being egalitarian and hearing every side of every argument; the Cowans insist on getting out of there as fast as possible. And when the facades start to peel away is when the real selves start to come out.

For instance, after about forty minutes of being as egalitarian as possible, Michael (Reilly) finally admits that he has no interest in hearing every side of this and that the meeting was a bad idea from the outset. His wife (Foster) insists that she is the only person who has ever been right about everything. Nancy (Winslet) gets incredibly drunk and childish, while Alan (Waltz) maintains a cool, calm head throughout and is entirely detached from the proceedings.

I’ve loved Christoph Waltz since his breakout, crossover role in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but I’m still unconvinced that his true potential has been mined since then. While he’s absolutely delightful here–as well as the only actor who makes the script feel like speech instead of metaphor–his role is too small to get any great development out of. And the same is really true of everyone here. These are four incredible actors, but for some reason, this movie was deemed complete at 79 minutes. It’s a good flaw to have, I guess, that the movie seems far too short to have as much substance as I’d like from it. But Carnage, sadly, is one of two movies from 2011 based on plays that don’t live up to what’s promised by the title.

I’m not saying I expected a murder, but in a small theater with half a dozen audience members, the laughter of the crowd was that of nervousness and tension. It wasn’t people laughing at good lines in a screenplay, it was people laughing to react in some way to the barely restrained violence on screen. And without a full crowd, that doesn’t warm over through peer pressure into actual laughter. Indeed, the movie I was watching seemed different from the one that the other people there were watching. I was watching a movie about four people about to kill each other. They were watching kids in a sandbox. And if there had been that one truly transgressive moment, it would’ve been this excellent re-contextualizing of all the things you’d been laughing at before.

If you take anything from this, don’t let it be that Carnage is a bad movie. Indeed, if you’ve been watching a usual diet of not that good movies this year, Carnage might be one of the best you see. But it’s so obviously scripted and doesn’t go anywhere truly dangerous or implied by the actors. It’s one of those movies that was written first and acted second as opposed to being written, acted and rewritten.

And for a movie about kids in an apartment, it still ended with kids in a park. THREE AND A HALF STARS