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Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet) come to the tasteful Brooklyn flat of Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope (Jodie Foster) to apologize for their son having injured the other couple’s boy in a rage (the kids are barely seen; one is played by Polanski’s son, Elvis). It doesn’t take long for nervous but gracious maturity to quiver, crack, and fly apart in verbal ambushes, lubricated by deluxe scotch. Proud adulthood, symbolized by Penelope’s precise stacking of her art books, sinks into recrimination and gender hostility.

The acting marathon is adroitly blocked and paced by Polanski and impeccably shot by Pawel Edelman. We can relish the mommy-lady control wires of Foster as she turns into a crass shrieker; the Euro-hauteur of Waltz (the Nazi marvel of Inglourious Basterds) as he spears everyone with sly zings — when he’s not on his cell phone, compulsively arranging a corporate cover up; the blunt, amiable guyness of Reilly, who finds his meatball gravity in the line “They don’t give a shit!” Above all, the flaking composure of Winslet as she disintegrates into disgust and ballistic vomit (funny, if you remember her surviving Titanic).

This is marginal Polanski from a minor play, yet it has an infallible equilibrium of actors. The verbal and emotional pinballing is worthy of directors Mike Nichols and Robert Altman in high form. The sense of a vain, shallow society exposing its brittle bones is fairly comical, though finally less Virginia Woolf than Who’s Afraid of Neil Simon? This is your chance to witness the drowning of a cell phone as a symbolic castration, and a hissy fit of hysteria caused by the violent emptying of a purse. Such vulnerable dopes, such silly seriousness.

Carnage opens January 13 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinema.

★★★


Reviewed in the movie capsules: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, The Sitter, and Young Adult.

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