There is possibly no filmmaker now living better-qualified to direct a movie set entirely within a single apartment than Roman Polanski, whose historical basis in such locations includes an entire "apartment trilogy" of horror films: Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, and The Tenant, each of them a master class in giving physical location a breathing vitality that makes the setting as important a character as anybody in the cast. And sure enough, his new film Carnage, adapted from Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage by the playwright herself alongside Polanski, is a terrific demonstration in how fluid a motion picture set can possibly be in one location and taking place in real time (except for the first and last shots, and one single cut midway through - a hugely regrettable cut, insofar as it comes at no point in particular and only saves the movie about 45 seconds).

Indeed, the film is so damn good at taking place in a very small, unchanging space and yet still feeling pretty much like a movie and not like filmed theater, that after a while it starts to feel like it's not doing much of anything else. Right around the point that I found myself more concerned with puzzling out if there was an errant lighting stand visible in a corner of a mirror than with what the characters were saying (there's not; it turned out to be part of a lamp), it became clear that the cleverness and ingenuity of how Carnage was made was pretty definitively trumping what Carnage was ostensibly about; that it was, essentially, a fun exercise for the director and nothing else, notwithstanding its impressive run of awards in its previous life as a stage play. And for all I know, maybe this absolutely murders onstage, when you're right in there with the actors screaming at each other; this is not what happens onscreen. And sure, Polanski scrounged up four pretty much unassailable actors to do the screaming and self-revealing, and they have probably as much fun playing their modestly fleshed-out archetypes and chewing on some really big dialogue and moments, as the director has coming up with nifty ways of framing them doing it. But that doesn't translate into much for the viewer besides a good chance to reflect on the considerable mechanical skill of the numerous people involved, which is a perfectly fine and not terrifically edifying way to spend 80 minutes, and God bless the film for its admirable brevity.

The four actors involved are Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly as Penelope and Michael Longstreet, and Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz as Nancy and Alan Cowan. The Cowans, you see, have just arrived to pay a visit to the Longstreets on the occasion of a nasty altercation in a park, when the Cowans' son hit the Longstreets' son in the face with a stick, knocking out teeth and causing temporary, but massive disfigurement to the boy's face. What reason the two couples have for getting together isn't totally clear - it becomes obvious eventually that it's not totally clear to them, either, which is meant to be illuminating of something or other - but while they try to hash out a mutually-beneficial solution that teaches both children the value of non-violence and open communication, the parents' carefully-manicured personalities start to break down through a series of incidental moments that would, individually, mean nothing at all, but in concert with one another demonstrate the moral vacuum at the center of the upper-middle-class lifestyle enjoyed by all four. Though how Michael, a traveling luxury hardware salesman, is meant to be on the same economic footing as Alan, a corporate lawyer working with a pharmaceutical company, is a question the script doesn't even seem aware could be asked. Perhaps in Reza's native France, people love the shit out of expensive doorknobs.

Anyway, that's the intent: in practice, the movie runs is too much a part of the very same world it's putatively satirising to do much damage, and it has to reduce the characters to stock types in order to get its point across. It's still funny enough as it shuffles through its various permutations of characterisations to be a completely engaging watch, though it's not half as intelligent as it plainly assumes itself to be, which is more frustrating by far than if it simply owned its lack of depth and devoted itself to making fun of Penelope's cardstock liberalism, Michael's barely-veiled thuggery, Alan's sarcastic awfulness, or Nancy's neurotic defensiveness, without trying to tie those traits into bigger social currents.

It gives the actors lots to play with, at least, and plenty of grandiose moments of conflict in every possible permutation other than Penelope-Alan vs. Nancy-Michael, while giving everybody plenty of lines to say that bear no resemblance to how people in real life have ever talked, but are still robust and dramatic enough that it's satisfying to watch. The four co-leads are not equally matched: Foster, sadly for those of us who love her, is the obvious pick for Worst in Show, as she is least able to navigate the breakdowns her character goes through in the third act without resorting to overwrought hysterics. But even she gets her good moments, and the other three are pretty stellar throughout - Winslet is the best, playing her moments as subtly as possible and therefore standing out from what really does amount, frequently, to a Baked Ham-Off; Reilly is impeccably cast as a jolly bourgeois husband with a mean streak, and Waltz, given the most cartoonish character to start with, is quite content to play Alan as a parody of how Jeremy Irons would have attacked the same character 25 years ago, which I mean to be a compliment even if it didn't come off that way.

It's amusing, full of entertaining Oscar clip moments, and wholly disposable, which is the one thing that it probably shouldn't be, given the pedigree; but better that than disposable and boring. I will concede that, ingenious filmmaking and striking physical manipulation of the actors aside, it does not seem at all up to the standards of Roman Polanski; when it briefly seemed last year that The Ghost Writer might be his last film before an indeterminate time spent in jail, it felt like a good send-off, whereas right now, I just desperately hope he can stay out of trouble long enough to do something special to make me forget this minor toss-off more than I already have.