Roman Polanski’s beautifully crafted, irredeemably stiff four-Brooklynites-in-a-room drama.

Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet in Carnage

Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet in Roman Polanski’s Carnage

© 2011 Sony Pictures Classics

What an odd project for Roman Polanski to choose after his elegant 2010 political thriller The Ghost Writer. Carnage (Sony Pictures Classics) is a beautifully crafted object; every detail, from the performances to the camerawork to the costuming, is carefully thought through and executed. But this faithful adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s stage play about a dispute between two pairs of upper-middle-class Brooklyn parents is also stiff, talky, and airless, a textbook example of that not-always-true cliché about the unfilmability of theater. Even as you admire the film’s construction, it’s hard to shake the thought that a lot of talent got thrown away on the wrong project.

Carnage unfolds in real time within the walls of one tasteful bohemian apartment, the home of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly). Their 11-year-old son has lost two teeth after a classmate hit him with a stick on the playground. So the classmate’s parents, Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) come over to the Longstreets’ place to draft a note to the school and talk over how to handle the incident with their boys.

If you’ve seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, you can probably work out a mental sketch of what the next 80 minutes will bring. The veneer of bourgeois politeness will be stripped away. Alliances will shift: first couple against couple, then gender against gender, and finally every man for himself. Witnessing these four people’s rapid devolution from concerned parents to snarling animals isn’t without dramatic interest, but it all happens in beats that the viewer can too easily anticipate. Moments that, onstage, might be forgiven their artifice—like the multiple exits and re-entries of the Cowans as they keep trying and failing to get in the elevator and leave—call attention to themselves, especially in the hypernaturalistic setting Polanski provides. As the emotional pitch, which already starts out high, ramps up to near-hysteria, the social satire of the early scenes gives way to a bald thesis statement of all-purpose nihilism: Everybody sucks. The end. We sat through all that verbiage for that?

Even at only 80 minutes (onstage, it was a one-act play), Carnage has draggy stretches, but there are jewels to be gleaned if you concentrate on the acting. Reilly and Winslet, in particular, find ways to bring out the script’s cruel humor (though Reilly’s bluff, macho character, who was played by James Gandolfini onstage, would be more convincing with a touch more physical menace). Foster and Waltz aren’t quite in the same league as their castmates: her performance is a shade too brittle, his too unctuous (brittleness and unctuosity being those actors’ respective specialties).

But this fine ensemble isn’t at fault for Carnage’s essential insubstantiality. An actor can only play the character he or she is given, and this film’s four principals aren’t so much individuals as representative social types. This is especially true of Foster’s character, the progressive do-gooder whose talk about “community” and “justice” masks a smug self-regard, and Waltz’s, the atavistic corporate lawyer who makes no secret of his distaste for the whole conciliatory enterprise. This symbolic freight weighs the movie down, making the climax into a clash of values and ideas, when what we were waiting for was a clash of people.

Like many of Polanski’s films, Carnage is a meditation on responsibility and guilt. Maybe there’s something to the notion that the director chose this project as a deliberate commentary on his own legal troubles: It does, after all, concern an unresolved argument among adults over a past act of violence perpetrated on a child. But it’s hard to believe an artist of Polanski’s discernment would be tin-eared enough to use as a work this bleakly cynical as a means of self-exoneration—which of the awful, self-serving characters would he intend to represent him?

I think it’s more likely that what drew Polanski to this material was its claustrophobic sense of confinement. Inescapable, increasingly nightmarish domestic spaces are a longtime obsession of the man who made horror classics like The Tenant, Repulsion, and Rosemary’s Baby, and from December 2009 to July 2010—a period not long before this film was made—Polanski was in fact under house arrest. It’s a shame that in Carnage, the audience experiences that sense of oppression mainly in the form of an anxious scan for the theater exits.