Roman Polanski’s experience in theater as performer and director before his star-making American run arguably left just as big an imprint on his visual and thematic habits as his mind-boggling personal history. The spatial and psychological traps so familiar from his films (distilled in a 1958 short Two Men and a Wardrobe) can be read as a productive displacement of experiments on stage. A veteran of stage-to-screen adaptations from Macbeth and Death and the Maiden, the filmmaker in exile turns to Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage for his latest and shortest feature, but on this occasion, the translation harvests little from its perhaps meager source.
In the story’s gossip-ready premise, a violent incident between two kids leads to a parental showdown during a failed attempt at conciliation. Nancy (Kate Winslet) and rich husband Alan (Christoph Waltz) visit Penelope (Jodie Foster) and middle-class Michael (John C. Reilly) at their Brooklyn apartment. As an engraved invitation might have it, “drinks, recriminations, hysteria to follow.”
Class tensions are enacted for our benefit, insults hurled for titillation. It’s an entertaining, cathartic fantasy of bad manners rather than something genuinely challenging or perverse. A grimacing Foster goes for it, and Reilly’s easygoing routine holds the attention more than Waltz’s smarm. But Polanski’s characteristic claustrophobia comes not out of psychological intrigue but from the narrow confines of predetermined ideas and character trajectories worthy of Neil LaBute.