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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Affluent New Yorkers duke it out in Carnage
Do-gooder vs. stockbroker
A darkly witty comedy of manners.
A darkly witty comedy of manners.

Roman Polanski's entertaining Carnage gestures at sharp satire, but I'm not entirely satisfied with the big insight. The film begins with a bloody confrontation between kids on a playground. Later, a glib corporate lawyer named Alan (Christoph Waltz) says, "I believe in the god of carnage," and then he talks smugly about the horrific strife in Congo, where the combatants include child soldiers.

Polanski and Yasmina Reza, who wrote the play God of Carnage, seem to be telling us: When people brutalize each other in armed conflict, it's really no different than children squabbling on the playground - because look, some of the soldiers are children. The analogy has been made before, famously by William Golding with Lord of the Flies. But Polanski and Reza's version is flawed. Unlike kids on the playground, child soldiers fight in the name of warmongers who are very much grown up.

But that's the part of the film you'll talk about in the car afterward. While you're watching, you'll be dazzled by a darkly witty comedy of manners, by its wondrous, hysterical performances.

Polanski has preserved the staginess of his source material. The film unfolds mainly in real time and mainly in one place, the comfortable Manhattan apartment of author Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), who sells housewares. Their young son has been attacked by the son of Alan and stockbroker Nancy (Kate Winslet). The four adults get together to talk the matter over, and at first there is a veneer of friendliness. But before long everyone is drunk and screaming in interludes that may remind you of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The film actually satirizes a veritable grab bag of contemporary topics in its short, 80-minute running time. Bullying. Protective parents. Heartless corporations. Cellphones. Carnage is especially withering on the topic of affluent liberal do-gooders, as embodied by Penelope. She obsessively collects art books and is writing a book about Darfur. "Art is a force for peace," she piously intones. Foster is marvelous in this role, tense and funny. Also marvelous is Winslet, who performs one of the greatest acts of cinematic vomiting since The Exorcist.

I'm afraid Polanski and Reza overplay their hand near the end, when they have Alan and Nancy drunkenly say some really nasty stuff. Give people who work in finance or law a bit to drink, the film implies, and you'll find out that deep down, they're racists and homophobes. Too easy.

There's also a bit of commentary about class and wealth, but it mainly has to do with subtle tension between people who are very well off (Alan and Nancy) and people who are slightly less well off (Michael and Penelope). That's a distinction Marxists tend not to dwell on.

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