There's a lot of capital-A acting in "Carnage," the Yasmina Reza play that has made the transition from Broadway stage to screen with none of the original cast, but all of the pseudo-sensational examination of upper-middle-class hypocrisy/illusion.
The setup, shot in Paris but made to look convincingly New York, is that two well-off couples -- Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly) and Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz) -- have gathered at the Longstreets' apartment to discuss their sons; in a schoolyard argument, one has knocked out the other's teeth. The adults' ostensibly civilized approach to very volatile emotional territory comes predictably apart, thanks to a combination of Michael's lumpish ennui, Penelope's barely contained hysteria, Nancy's penchant for stress-related vomiting, Alan's inability to get off his cellphone -- and what Reza sees as the easily cracked veneer of societal nicety, our primal resistance toward feigned civility.
If it seems like Edward Albee covered all this 50 years ago in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," he did. The screenplay, by Reza and director Roman Polanski, quite often has the edge of a rusty razor blade. Polanski -- aided by his longtime cinematographer, Pawel Edelman -- situates his characters in a frame that, like themselves, seems slightly askew, while basking them in a light of divine prejudgment.
The cast is generally first-rate -- Foster's intensity has an almost disturbing ferocity to it -- but a four-character film is inevitably going to be defined by its personnel, and Polanski's choices have taken the show in a decidedly different direction than it took on Broadway. Ultimately, the astonishing Waltz steals the picture, possibly because he's the one with a rational perspective (despite his telephonic obsessiveness): He sees the whole exercise as pointless. Ultimately, so do we.
PLOT Well-to-do New York couples meet to discuss a fight between their sons, and proceed to melt down. RATING R (language)
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE Roman Polanski knows how to make our nerves jump, but his claustrophobic adaptation of the Yasmina Reza play only emphasizes the triteness of the material.