Originally titled, in French, “The God of Carnage,” and written as a play, this one definitely looks staged, and definitely worships chaos.
Director Roman Polanski shoots the first scene from a distance: two boys, about 12, get into it on the playground. Yelling turns to pushing turns to shoving, and one boy whacks the other one with a stick and then stalks off.
The next thing we know, the two sets of parents of the boys are sitting together in a New York apartment trying to be civilized about this, and progressively not succeeding.
Jodie Foster plays Penelope Longstreet as a kind of tortured, uptight perfectionist who thinks she is being “adult” about it, but is actually taking every opportunity to throw around guilt and recrimination and the kind of inner rage that won’t be cured because she just can’t bend her world to her will.
John C. Reilly plays Michael Longstreet, Penelope’s husband, as the salesman with aggressive social skills, a thin cover-up for the kind of nihilism that finally proclaims in exasperation, “Hey, we’re born alone, and we die alone. Who wants a scotch?”
Kate Winslet plays Nancy Cowan as tight-lipped, proper, and profusely apologetic, but her physical illness at playing such a false version of herself eventually can no longer disguise her disdain for her constantly-distracted spouse as well as her condescension toward the Longstreets.
Christoph Waltz plays Alan Cowan, Nancy’s husband, as the super-busy important businessman who is always getting cell phone calls in which he loudly advises whoever’s on the other end to deny and obfuscate about the reported side effect of a popular pharmaceutical. As if that’s how the big boys play. His arrogance is palpable, but then, he never really believed his kid was totally at fault in the first place. And so this whole encounter doesn’t deserve any more than part of his attention.
This film is not very optimistic about relationships, couples, marriage, and family. It’s all a battle or a bore or a constant exercise in futility and frustration and non-fulfillment. In the end, nobody is happy, though they do discover that they at the very least they can get soused together. Hopefully, that’s not an accurate parable of the human condition. But it’s the kind of film you laugh at sardonically because of its naked truths and utter vituperativeness, but you walk out hoping they’re wrong.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas