The Myth of Sticks and Stones...
I imagine Carnage is the type of film that would appeal to those it mocks: the touchy-feely lefty intellectual who thinks that dialogue will lead to a peaceful resolution. With Carnage, we see that words uttered by even the most 'civilized' people can become weapons against even those who are ostensibly on their side. It is a comedy but the laughs come less from the situations than the participates; in other words, we laugh AT these people, not with them, because underneath the veneer of rational discussion they are all brittle, self-righteous, even vindictive.
The whole of Carnage (based on the play The God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza) takes place at the apartment of the Longstreets save for the opening which sets up the entire story. We see the Longstreet child, Ethan, whacked pretty hard by Zachary Cowan. We then shift to the Longstreet flat where Penolope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) are writing out a letter about this unfortunate incident with Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz).
The Longstreets and Cowans are doing their best to be civil and respectful, to discuss this like adults, to try to sort out the responsibilities of their children. As the 80-odd minute film continues, we see that one wrong word, one seemingly innocuous gesture, builds on itself to where one adult reacts in a way different than what might have been intended. Apple cobbler offered in friendship causes Nancy to vomit, which cause the Longstreets and Cowans to discuss how much they dislike the other for actions both accidental and deliberate.
As the afternoon goes on, with the Cowans appearing desperate to leave, the Longstreets appearing desperate to stay justified, and both groups starting to snipe at each other, we see the shifting alliances, from the spouses to the genders and back again. Each of the four in Carnage comes off as rather horrid: the uptight Nancy, the on-the-edge Penelope, the accommodating Michael, the disinterested Alan. By the time they finally part company, we have enjoyed (or endured) a comedic version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with slightly less booze and no sex.
Carnage is amusing in that it is funny seeing all these allegedly bright, intelligent, well-off people go at each other and come apart, revealing that under their veneer of liberal thinking (liberal in every sense of the word) they are just as petty and small-minded as the 99% can be.
The performances are remarkably true and understanding of gender roles. Men, especially Michael and Al, are oftentimes more casual about things like fights among boys (the husbands have no problem sharing drinks and being slightly more nonchalant about their children's altercation). Women, in particular Nancy and Penelope, are more quick to see their children's actions as reflective of something wrong: in society, in the family, in the way the world is.
Each of the actors is allowed a moment in Carnage where they can have their moment, whether it's to look foolish or come apart. Foster reminds us of what a strong actress she is in her Penelope (aka Penny), a woman so determined to do the right thing she ends up becoming more and more angry that things aren't being seen the way she sees them. Winslet manages to hold her own as the uptight Nancy, who finds her husband's constant distractions via his cell phone so impossible that at one point she takes action that will both surprise and make one laugh.
At times I confess to wondering why Winslet is considered this brilliant actress (finding her ability to be naked on screen neither a turn-on or a point of her 'brilliance'). Some of her work appears to be her playing at playing a great character (and I will be one of the few who thought both The Reader and her work in it was rather awful). However, she did a great job in Carnage as the high-strung Nancy.
The men were equally excellent. Reilly is the go-to guy for lovable schlubs and here his desire to be accommodating to everyone soon begins to take on at times a desperate air, at times a frustrated one. Waltz's Al makes it clear by his actions that he is really not interested in anything going on, but even he allows the cracks within him to rise, in particular when he takes offense at something Penelope says about his son.
I think the fact that Carnage is a well-acted film is both the blessing and curse of Carnage as directed by Roman Polanski (whom I'll always have a moral distaste for and wouldn't allow my wife, daughter, or mother around--for his safety, not necessarily theirs). The adaptation of The Gods of Carnage by Reza and Polanski makes the film Carnage no more than what it is: a filmed play.
We see that as good as the cast's performances are, that is exactly what they are: performances. None of the characters come to life because Carnage is very conscious of the fact that the screenplay is very actor-friendly. The film allows good actors (and Winslet, who can be a good actress at times) to show how good they are on a technical level.
However, as I watched Carnage, and enjoyed it, I could not help thinking I wouldn't get anything different if the four of them did a theatrical version of The God of Carnage on the stage. I think this is where my admiration for Carnage dives into my separation from Carnage. In short, the performances were great, but there was an artifice to it all, as if they knew we knew they were acting. To my mind, theater acting and film acting are different (I learned that from Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish--not from them personally but by watching how both toned down the exaggerated theatricality of the stage for the more intimate nature of film). Yes, each of the actors were good, but they weren't real people, just characters.
Still, this isn't to say that Carnage is bad. It isn't even to say the film isn't something that people cannot relate to. That is one of the chief positives of Carnage: the fact that it draws on a common human experience, that of saying the wrong thing or saying things wrong. I am a witness that something said one way can be interpreted another, leading to nothing but trouble. As I watched Carnage, I was able to go back into moments in my life where I said something that turned out wrong and made people mad, but when they responded I was the one that got mad even if they did not necessarily mean to be hurtful.
Just ask anyone who has heard me on the subject of Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party movement. What I meant as a joke turns into a fiasco of hurt feelings and self-righteous posturing, where I cannot make amends because they "know" whether I'm sincere or not and can even inform me as to the sincerity of my sincerity (thus granting them greater wisdom over my heart, soul, and mind than I myself possess over my heart, soul, and mind).
Yet I digress.
Carnage is well-acted. Check. Carnage draws on common human emotions and frailties to portray even the most civilized and open-minded people as petty, with grievances that lead to explosions over trivial matters. Check. Carnage is efficient and quick, just like a play. Check and check again. We do see that indeed, words hurt.
It's just like seeing the play. That's the good and bad of seeing the end results of this Carnage.