The play "God of Carnage", by French playwright Yasmina Reza, has been a success on stage in France, Britain and the United States, among other places. It's an edgy story about two middle-aged couples who meet to find a civilized way to settle a fight between their respective 11-year-olds which ended with one of them needing dental care. They start out as apologetic mitigators and end the evening arguing, name-calling, even bullying each other amidst some more or less serious soul-searching.
Set inside the apartment of one of the boys' parents for its entire running-time and with an undynamic basic premise, an adaptation of this play was going to be a demanding task for director and cast. The direction has to be tight and assured, but at the same time playful enough to mirror the comic absurdity of the situation in a productive way. The acting has to be forceful and to-the-point, but not become too theatrical. Polanski and his cast only succeed fairly well at this.
The opening is very promising, with Polanski demonstrating clever, lurking use of in-medias-res as we're getting to know four people who could all be your next-door-neighbour. Their small hints of confrontation cushioned by apt etiquette and political correctness is a delight to watch. The film is really onto something, and it continues as each separate couple start nagging at each other - first subtly, then more outright. Carnage offers enough food for thought concerning parenting, modern sex roles and individual vs. social ethics through its intriguing disintegration of character. And while Polanski finds a fine pacing and rhythm in the film's first half, when we are given reason to hope for a modern-day Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, both he and the performers run into trouble when trying to wrap it up. The characters' increased frustration and loss of face is conveyed too frantically; the performances go over the top (especially Jodie Foster's), the dialogue becomes increasingly cerebral and uncolloquial (strange considering the alcohol consumption), and they all take turns acting-out in basically the same way. That is to say; the plot is starting to feel written.
Had Polanski managed to maintain more rhythm and relieve his runaway film with some pauses and contrasts, it might have worked better. A story as staged and contained as this becomes more vulnerable to even the smallest hint of ineffectiveness, and although Carnage is appropriately long and never misses its mark, the momentum is lost towards the end due to the aforementioned issues. The film's very last shot thus becomes redeeming in more than one way.