March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Words wound as Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz tear into each other in the savagely funny 'Carnage'


The clafoutis has turned into cobbler, the rum has been traded out for scotch, a couple of names have been changed (to protect the guilty?) and the action sometimes leaves the living room, but otherwise director Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” is a faithful and often ferociously funny adaptation of Yasmina Raza‘s “God of Carnage,” the spiky black comedy that enjoyed highly successful runs on Broadway and in London’s West End.

The movie, like the play, puts two seemingly sophisticated, upstanding couples under a microscope, slowly and shockingly revealing every character flaw and inconsistency in the Cowans — workaholic lawyer Alan (Christoph Waltz) and evasive, nicey-nice Nancy (Kate Winslet) — and the Longstreets — easygoing Michael (John C. Reilly) and erudite Penelope (Jodie Foster). Brought together in the Longstreets’ spacious Manhattan apartment by a crisis involving a playground brawl, the quartet initially plays well together. Barely suppressed tensions and accusations eventually bubble up to the surface, however, and “Carnage” erupts into something between a showdown and a throwdown.

Raza’s French-language play was translated and Americanized by Christopher Hampton, who is no stranger to “beautiful people” behaving maliciously: He wrote the stage and screen adaptations of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”/”Dangerous Liaisons.” So when congeniality gives way to condescension and politeness turns into put-downs, it’s as if Foster, Reilly, Winslet and Waltz are throwing invisible knives at each other. Despite the title, “Carnage” includes no actual blood, although it’s fair to say no one emerges from this posh battlefield unscathed.

Each of the actors gets his or her turn in the spotlight as the conversation intensifies and alliances between spouses form, deteriorate and finally disintegrate. Foster, who initially looks slightly out of her element as a scholarly sort, takes us by surprise as the even-handed Penelope gradually transforms into a vituperative volcano, the muscles in her jaw, neck, back and shoulders becoming almost razor-sharp as her anger and indignation rise. Reilly brings out the demons beneath Michael’s happy-go-lucky surface (he’s particularly amusing in his handling of the story’s running gag about a missing hamster named Nibbles), and Winslet performs a similar trick with Nancy, whose tight-lipped tolerance is put to the test by Alan’s constantly ringing cell phone.

As the most aggressive and abrasive of the four, Waltz is deliciously nasty, using Alan’s snorty, snooty laugh like a cudgel and spewing venom at every opportunity. “I saw your friend Jane Fonda on TV the other day,” he tells the sometimes strident, ultra-liberal Penelope. “It made me want to run out and buy a Ku Klux Klan poster.”

True, putting “Carnage” on the screen nullifies some of the excitement of the clashes and amplifies the script’s most puzzling glitch: Why do the Cowans stick around? The screenplay, which was touched up by Reza and Polanski, conjures up rather flimsy reasons for Alan and Nancy to delay their departure, although the truth of the matter seems to be that they don’t leave because Polanski isn’t quite ready to bring down the curtain on this domestic demolition derby.