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Civilized People

by Shawn Stone on January 19, 2012

Directed by Roman Polanski

When the 10-year-old scion of the Longstreet family whacks the eldest son of the Cowan clan in the face with the end of a stick, the result is hurt feelings and missing teeth on the part of the latter. But something else has been injured—namely, the social fabric weaving together two families who are shining examples of New York City’s one-percenters. Thus, when the parents meet like sensible adults at the Cowan home to decide what is to be done, it is with a sense of purpose. The Longstreets and the Cowans really want to do the right thing.

Or do they?

In Carnage, adapted from the hit international play Le Dieu du carnage (God of Carnage on Broadway) by playwright Yasmina Reza and director Roman Polanski, that’s the question: Do any of them really care whether their kids work things out or not?

The answer is . . .  sort of, but not really. Over the course of a brisk 79 minutes (which is reason enough to admire Carnage), the four parents repeatedly trade very funny verbal jousts until they reach a point where they sort of acknowledge that they really don’t give a shit—and then can’t accept it. So inertia, in the form of politeness, sets in. But then the cycle of argument begins again, with the characters becoming a little more desperate, tired, and drunk each time around.

The Cowans (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) are of the comfortable merchant class—plumbing supplies, to be specific—and wear sensible earth-toned garb in their tasteful high-rise flat. The Longstreets (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) are of the corporate class—he’s a lawyer for big pharma—and look like a couple of elegant sharks.

The playwright passes little judgments on each couple, judgments that take the form of sharp comic jabs: Foster’s Penelope Cowan “writes nooks” and cares about Africa; Waltz’ Alan Longstreet spends as much time on his cell phone with a hysterical client as he does with the Cowans (and his own wife). Polanski directs with a clinical impartiality that is not without sympathy. When he goes in for a close-up, for example on Reilly in the middle of a heated exchange, or on Winslet in the aftermath of another one, we can’t help but feel empathy.

When the film stops—you can’t say that it “ends”—no one seems any wiser. But there are enough laughs for the audience, at least, to feel happier.