Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) invite Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) to their high-rise New York apartment in order to discuss how their children should be disciplined after the Cowans' son hit the Longstreets' son with a stick while they were playing in the park. This location puts the group above it all, literally, and with their high-minded attempts to have a civilized conversation they pretend to be above it all emotionally as well. But the meeting starts to take on darker overtones, and soon the foursome bicker, get drunk, and sink into such self-loathing that three of them declare this the worst day of their lives. That's the simple setup for Carnage, a jet-black comedy of manners that plays to director Roman Polanski's thematic and visual strengths.
Adapted from the Tony Award-winning play God of Carnage, the movie never quite escapes its obvious origins as a stage production, but you can hardly fault Polanski for refusing to "open up" the material when the actors get to revel in such entertaining dialogue. Besides, the whole point of the play is that these two couples get too close to one another -- both physically and emotionally -- for this brief period of time. Confining them in more or less a room and a hallway adds to the claustrophobic feelings that the characters experience.
The four-person cast, which includes three Oscar winners, is unsurprisingly excellent. Jodie Foster plays a high-strung woman whose interest in exposing African genocide masks deep feelings of liberal guilt, and Reilly adroitly handles Michael's evolution as he drops the mask of public niceties to reveal an angry and petulant man who would release his young daughter's pet hamster into the streets. As the parents of the attacked child, they take every opportunity to make the Cowans feel as guilty as possible while initially refusing to drop the pretense of manners.
As played by Winslet, Nancy is a stressed-out, bitter housewife at the end of her rope, with a husband who spends more time on his cell phone conducting business than interacting with her or their child. But it's Waltz who has the best part, because Alan is the only one who can barely bother to pretend that this entire meeting is necessary; he's an unapologetic corporate shark who, in the film's best monologue, expresses his belief in the God of Carnage.
Even at its brief running time, there is a point when a certain sameness sets in: Once these people are exposed for their various insecurities and faults, there really isn't anywhere for the storyline to go dramatically. The actors keep it watchable, though, and the final shot is pure and perfect Polanski. With a single image he lets us know that whatever these privileged, wealthy New Yorkers are going through, it has almost no relation to the real world. It's a fabulous ending that makes Carnage an enjoyably pointed satire about how people can overthink themselves into unnecessary misery.